Shoes Too Big to Fill?

When a new CEO is appointed following a charismatic personality, not everything must go according to the plan. Let’s explore how to step out elegantly from the shadow of giants.


The Context

When my client Alena reached out to work together, she was the first in line to succeed her boss, an extremely successful and charismatic woman CEO. 

“My greatest concern,” Alena said, “is that people will constantly compare me to her. Now, she was very successful indeed. This is because her personality and leadership style fit perfectly with what our company needed when she was appointed CEO – market expansion, drive, intense competitiveness. This is what helped her drive results and our shareholders were very happy with her. So, will they accept me, with my completely different personality and leadership style, in the new role?”

Alena’s concern was spot on.

It’s enough to look on the market and see that numerous CEOs who step into the shoes of giants – Steve Balmer succeeding Bill Gates at Microsoft, Bob Chapek succeeding Bob Iger at Disney – don’t always manage to live up to the expectations shareholders and the market place on them.

Now, do they disappoint because they were poorer CEOs than their predecessors, or do they disappoint because we constantly compare them with their outstandingly successful predecessors, which automatically places the new CEO into a space of extra challenge, stress, and anxiety?

We don’t know; there is no data to show this correlation. But this was a vital point that we had to take into consideration as we dove into Alena’s individual executive coaching and mentoring program NEVER WALK ALONE for women CEOs.

The First Step

The first thing that we did was to identify Alena’s leadership strengths. How exactly was she brilliant? What situations from her past proved this?

Once we did this, we drew the conclusion that Alena’s key strengths were her extreme intelligence, thorough understanding of her market, compassion, long-term relationship building, and resilience.

Second, we looked at the market in which her company operated. How was that market different from the market taken over by her predecessor years ago? What were the trends on her market and what was needed to succeed under today and tomorrow’s circumstances?

“Right now the market is much more competitive, which would play the card of those who look up to my predecessor. But this is a different type of competitiveness; this is not about grabbing market share from one or two competitors; this is about our capacity to come up with new digital products that could revolutionize our market. Today we compete mainly for clients’ attention, care, and loyalty, and this is where I am very, very good.”

The Second Step

Now that we knew how Alena could succeed in her new role and out of the shadow of her former boss, we needed to craft the story of her own leadership style.

We worked together at crafting a compelling vision for where she would like to take the company, and we trained her delivering her vision repeatedly in front of different groups of stakeholders.

Alena’s homework was to revisit the recordings of her vision sharing and to improve her delivery on the go.

The Breakthrough

Beyond leadership strategy setting and vision communications there was one more elephant in the room that we needed to address.

In reality, people looked up to her former CEO indeed because she had been successful, but also because she had come across as extremely self-confident, which helped people trust her.

On the other hand, when we step into the shoes of giants, it’s normal to feel a bit anxious. If that anxiety shows, people will catch on it immediately and risk label us as less self-confident, aka the opposite of the former boss. This is how a negative spiral could be started, igniting a potential self-fulfilling prophecy of not living up to expectations.

So, we needed to work on Alena’s anxiety.

First, we normalized it. It’s absolutely normal to feel a bit apprehensive when we start in a new major role.

Second, we mapped the visible behaviors that could convey Alena’s anxiety. When anxious, Alena would tend to have a preoccupied, frowning facial expression; she would also tend to jump in and interrupt. We mapped both body language and communication manifestations and we looked for the right solutions.

The solutions we found together were:

  1. Be mindful of her facial expressions and make a deliberate effort to smile mildly as often as possible.
  2. Notice her tendency to interrupt; always have pen and paper at hand to write down her response as opposed to jumping into the speech flow of her peers.
  3. Take regular breaks to recharge herself emotionally. Spend these breaks alone.
  4. Find a song that could put her back in an uplifted mood after a meeting and before another important meeting.

We also agreed that Alena would ask regular feedback from her executive assistant, who would travel with  her, and who would report regularly to Alena on how she came across in live, in-person meetings that could not be recorded for subsequent debrief.

The Resolution

Now it was the time to dive in.

Armed with a powerful strategy to manage both stakeholder perception and her emotions, Alena went through her new CEO appointment interviews with flying colors.

Three months into her new role, her boss, the regional CEO told her: “I would have never expected you to do so well. Everyone is delighted to have you on board.” This reassured Alena that she was doing a great job.

The positive spiral that we had put in place was in motion; now only life will tell the CEO journey Alena has ahead of her.  

PS: Let’s Talk

Are you a woman leader who is just about to be appointed the new CEO? Are you walking in the steps of a charismatic predecessor whom everyone loved and you’re concerned you could be constantly compared to them? Do you need to craft a compelling vision and communication strategy that will help you lead your own way?

Let’s talk:  




Let's Talk

Are you a woman CEO in charge of major transformation? Could your leadership efforts be hindered by bias and lack of empathy in your organization? Could you use some critical distance and a deeper understanding of the invisible dynamics in your executive team?

Let's Talk

Are you a woman CEO in charge of major transformation? Could your leadership efforts be hindered by bias and lack of empathy in your organization? Could you use some critical distance and a deeper understanding of the invisible dynamics in your executive team?