Jim was a highly successful nonprofit executive nearing the end of his career. With a bit less than ten years left before retirement, he figured it was time to make one last move to a new company in a different city. It was painful to leave an organization where he was both beloved and revered for his bold, compassionate, transformative leadership. So it came as quite a shock to Jim when after just six months in his dream job he found himself failing miserably. His staff did not like or trust him. His ideas, even those that had worked so well in his last organization, were dead on arrival. In addition, there was already a campaign to get Jim fired.
How could things have gone so badly, so fast?
The fatal mistake Jim made was in assuming that the leadership credibility he had built up over the fifteen years in his last company would automatically transfer along with him. It never occurred to Jim that telling his new team of all his past successes would not instantly generate trust in his leadership.
Here is the leadership lesson that Jim missed somewhere along the line: Leadership credibility does not transfer.
Credibility as a leader is almost an entirely contextual commodity. It has to be earned with each new set of team members in each new context. It takes time and intentionality to build up credibility if a leader wishes to be effective.
Sadly, Jim’s experience is an all-too-common occurrence. In our consulting practice we frequently see mature career professionals enter into a new system and immediately begin making changes, giving orders, and implementing sweeping initiatives without giving any forethought to establishing their credibility. “Well, don’t they know who I am,” is the refrain we most hear. “Don’t they know what I have accomplished in my career,” they exclaim.
The reality is that as far as the new culture is concerned, the new leader might just as well have been born yesterday. It does not matter to the team how accomplished the leader is. What matters to them is who that leader is to them and what she or he has done to win their trust and respect. Leadership guru Peter Drucker once said prophetically that “precisely where you succeeded before, is where you will fail next.” I think that part of what he had in mind is this phenomenon of credibility transfer. A leader’s next failure often arises due to the set of assumptions they carry with them from one assignment to the next.
So, when you make your next move, remember you are truly starting anew. Build trust and credibility with consistent behavior that is true to your professional values. Treat people with respect and dignity and graciously hold them accountable. Model the behaviors you wish to see. Exhibit an appropriate level of leadership vulnerability and admit your mistakes with grace and humility. With this approach you will earn the credibility you must have to make your leadership tenure effective.