There is a story full of business wisdom that is one of my favorites. It has many variations but a common one goes something like this:
A new CEO walks into his office for the first time and finds two sealed letters on his desk. One has written on the envelope: “open on your first day on the job.” The second envelope has written: “open on your last day on the job.” The CEO opens the first letter and printed there were the simple words “blame everything on your predecessor.” The CEO takes the advice, gets off to a strong start and has an extraordinary run as CEO, taking the business through a multi-year period of high growth, an IPO, and an industry consolidation. On the day he retires as a company legend and an industry icon, as he packs up his office and desk, he comes across the second letter, opens it, and reads “write two letters.” He does just that, leaving them on the desk for his hand-picked successor.
Having been a new CEO and an ex-CEO, I can say with certainty that there is a lot to this story. It suggests a new CEO is really a restart in so many ways. Old traditions can be put aside. “This is the way we do things” stops applying. Hard decisions can be made because no one will hold the new CEO accountable to previous bad decisions or bad investments or bad hires that now need to be unwound.
The corollary is that Letter 1 has a statute of limitations. Blame everything on the previous CEO – but do it quickly and move on. Blame is about “they” and leadership is about “we” – so make the changes fast, dump the baggage, reset the financial expectations for the board, and embrace the company as its leader. Six months into the role it really needs to feel like and be your seat. Twelve months in and no one remembers the old CEO’s name. Your name is on the door and the company’ past, present, and future are now your responsibility and the responsibility of the team that supports you. Remembering this will help keep the second letter in the drawer for a long time to come.