Blaming your predecessor

Some 20 years ago I took a transfer within the retailer I was working for at the time and was promoted to my first real marketing leadership position. I inherited a colossal mess. Our division’s sales were down month after month and margins were collapsing. As far as I could tell, nothing that marketing had tried over the past several years had improved the brand’s positioning one iota, much less successfully driven critically needed incremental traffic to our stores.

As I embarked on this Herculean challenge I initially leaned into what was, in retrospect, an extremely juvenile and pointless tactic that only served to underscore both my immaturity and inexperience: I blamed my predecessor.

Now to be sure, he hadn’t done a great job. But, to be fair, he was dealt a horrible hand and, in many respects, was in way over his head. Regardless, as far as I could tell, he did the best he could given the circumstances and always operated from a place of integrity.

Yet all of this was beside the point.

There was, of course, nothing wrong with acknowledging the reality I found myself–and the business–in. There was nothing wrong with dissecting the root causes of our problems. There was nothing wrong in learning from what worked and, as it turned out, mostly from what didn’t.

But where I failed as a leader was going into blaming mode rather than accountability mode. I chose to tap into the drama of feeling like a victim rather than the creative energy of being empowered.

The fact was that nobody forced me to take the job. Nobody had given me the advice that it was a good idea to focus my energies and attention on assigning blame and dwelling on the past. Most importantly, nobody had provided me with a time machine that allowed me to go back in time to fix all the things I was complaining about.

Our egos love avoiding difficult situations and deflecting attention away from accepting the challenges and opportunities of the present moment. Slipping into the blame game is seductively easy because it takes us off the hook and shifts the spotlight to an imagined perpetrator who surely must be the source of our problems.

Yet when we sign up to lead, we need to do just that. No blaming. No avoidance. No deflecting. And definitely no whining.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this lesson. Sadly, many in positions of responsibility and authority are still learning.

Not everyone wants to (or deserves to be) in a leadership position. But if we ask for the keys, we need to learn how to drive responsibly. And most importantly, we need to start driving.

As it turns out, much of the time winning is easy. Governing is harder.








One thought on “Blaming your predecessor

  1. Steve- so true. As a career retailer I have been the so called clean up guy more times than not and it is best to just get on with it than playing the blame game. Especially when you have not earned your teams loyalty yet. And I love the Hamilton reference!

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