Inheritances Are Good, Aren’t They?

There is no doubt about it. Moving into a new management position is generally a time of exhilaration, excitement and nervous tension. A time also when new incumbents are bursting with enthusiasm and prepared to work hard to do what needs to be done. It can also be a time of surprises and a rapid loss of enthusiasm and trust if the incumbent finds the new role has an attached legacy – inherited problems that were never alluded to or discussed at interview or subsequent meetings with interview panelists, HRM personnel or significant others.

Typically, inherited problems are those with a long history of defeated managers and failed interventions. They are the ones that are widely known and talked about within the organisation, the ones that effectively impact upon the day to day functioning of a department, section or whole organisation. The ones that become your problem the moment you step into the role. Ones with labels like ‘poor performers’, ‘no supporting infrastructure’, ‘lack of operating budgets’, ‘change resistant staff’, ‘unsustainable services’.

So what can be done about unattractive inheritances?

Interviewing panelists and individuals in a hiring capacity have a responsibility to be open about a position, its challenges and expected outcomes. They need to avoid minimising or over dramatising any inherited problems and be honest and direct about what the appointee is going into. As one example of understating things, panelists that asked an interviewee what they would do if they had two staff who didn’t get along sometimes, were light years away from describing the reality. This saw the appointee going into a service with largely untrained, unskilled staff; several fighting factions within the workplace and a service that had totally veered away from its core service and professional base. Would it make you wonder about the professionalism of the panelists? The organisation as a whole?

Be mindful that historical problems are ultimately the responsibility of top management, not the sole responsibility of a new appointee. The existence of known historical problems can be seen as a systemic management failure and begs other questions. How could something remain unsolved or unattended, for so long? Who manages and monitors the managers? What skills and abilities do these managers have? What resources are really available to managers? Historical problems are shared problems. They require a shared problem solving approach, close monitoring and ongoing work until they are successfully resolved and eliminated.

Additional resources are likely to be needed. This means accessing other managers or specialist roles within the organisation or using specialist advisors outside the organisation i.e. legal, financial, HRM, marketing, management coach etc. Resolving historical problems is not easy and managers, on occasions, may require extra resources and support to manage them effectively. Resources freely given, not begged or fought for, will make all the difference – to the incumbent.

Consider changing the organisation’s tolerance levels. Historical problems begin life as small, unchecked issues or situations that become larger and larger and eventually take on a life of their own. If you want to avoid this hazard, develop operating policies and practices that enable you to identify issues when they first appear, then act upon them. Develop a zero tolerance approach to key issues and act accordingly.

First Published NZ Business June 2001

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