Shred the first envelope

Disclaimer and proviso: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t represent Amazon’s position in any way whatsoever.”

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “3 envelopes” joke? It’s popular in corporate lore. It involves a newly-hired CEO who is given three numbered envelopes by the outgoing CEO in case he runs into serious trouble. Inevitably, as problems come up, the new CEO opens the first envelope, in which he finds a message that reads “Blame your predecessor.” (you’ll have to read the rest of the joke for yourself if you don’t know/want to know how it ends)

I was chatting with my boss about this over beers several weeks ago, and remembered how much it happens. Blaming the predecessor is very common in the workplace. I’ve done it in the past, have had it repeated to me in many forms, and thankfully broke this habit many years ago. “This place is such a wreck because of the last guy”. “The old manager never did anything”. “Such and such would be fixed/shipped, etc. if it wasn’t for the person that was here before me”. It’s a very tempting and easy tape to play. It also has negative consequences, many of which most people are blindly unaware of.

You can only get away with saying this for so long..

.. And that so long lasts about 4–6 weeks tops, rarely more. This is the most obvious negative consequence of employing this tactic — it has a short expiration date. Every new hire is given a ramp-up period, after which whatever problems are there become their problem. Your mileage (time) may vary depending on position or level of seniority — however, the expectations are almost always the same. The more junior the role, the faster a fix is expected. The more senior the role, the more severe the problem, and the pressure is on to fix whatever is broken as quickly as possible before serious damage is done to the company as a whole.

The same person that hired you also hired your predecessor

This happens so much, it amazes me how many people just don’t get it, and it’s not very likely something your manager or leadership are going to open up about, unless they operate with full transparency, and sadly, few managers do.

Going to your boss and telling them that Johnny or Kate (note: obvious random names) were completely incompetent and left behind a smoldering pile of ashes isn’t going to make them feel them any better about their decision. They may have been professional colleagues, friends even. Getting rid of what turned out to be a mismatch or bad hire who is/was also a good friend could have acrimoniously spilled into their personal lives as well (I have seen this happen twice). The decision most likely had a negative professional impact to your immediate manager and their leadership. Does it really do you any good to remind them that they made an unfortunate decision? All you’re really doing is the equivalent of poking the bear.

Your predecessor most likely still has supporters, and they are all around you

Very few situations end with unanimous consent when it comes to less than average management. Behind every departure there is a back story — some very simple, many not so much. However, unless someone is universally hated (which admittedly happens, but is rare), most people leave friends behind in the organization. They could now be your directs, or extended directs. It could be your boss (see above), or their leadership. It could be your peers. All of whom are, at the very least, not going to be very happy about you degrading their friend, or at the worst, are going to go out of their way to make you miserable in your new role. The “happy medium”, if you could call it that, is somewhere in between — you’ll likely lose the respect of your peers, leadership and colleagues, as well as their support when you need it.

There are always things you do not know

Extenuating circumstances could have played a role in why your new org/team/etc. is in a less than perfect state. Indeed, they often do. It could very well be that bad management decisions (again, see above) crippled your predecessor’s chances of success. Shifting priorities, budget cuts, market conditions, organizational attrition, project randomization — all of these things can cause someone to have a less than perfect season, so to speak. It’s possible that the person you replaced did their best, burned out and left. This happens — a lot. Reminding people that “it’s someone else’s fault” that things are the way the are will only bring up bitter memories.

Worst of all, it just makes you look incompetent

“But why,” you say? “I just got here, and this place is terrible, everything is broken, bla bla bla..”

Stop. Just, stop. As a mature professional, it’s your job to ask precision questions about what you’re getting yourself into beforehand. If you “discover” that what you previously thought was Utopia is actually the 7th circle of Hell “after the fact”, it is rarely anyone else’s fault but yours, as is the decision to step through the fiery gates. Even in the case where people are dishonest with you about a potential opportunity, there are ways to mitigate this and maintain professionalism, composure and dignity.

So, what do I do?

1) In almost all cases, shred the first envelope. The only exceptions are unearthing issues that have legal/criminal implications or severe breach of company policy that need to be reported. If you happen to run into such an exception, raise the concern as appropriate, and as indicated by legal avenues and corporate policy. In all other cases:

2) First, gather as much data as you can. This is how you start fixing whatever happens to be broken. Don’t change stuff immediately, because you don’t know if you should change stuff, or what to change. If you’re a first-level manager, having open and transparent 1:1's with your direct reports is the first step you take. If you’re a skip level manager or above, having open and transparent 1:1's with those same individual contributors is also the first step you take. The IC’s on the ground will have the most information, and will almost always be the most forthcoming, given the right approach.

3) Ask for help when you need to. Your manager/leadership hired you to fix whatever’s busted. You’ve helped them save face by not projecting about the problem and highlighting their possible bad decision to hire/keep this person around. You’ve done the same with your peers, who may have supported some of these decisions. State the problem set clearly and in a data-driven fashion, present your plan/roadmap/vision to implement a permanent fix, and ask for headcount, cooperation and assistance, or whatever else it will take to right the ship.

This goes twice for your organization or team. Your message should always be “Things are tough, but we’re going to work hard and smart, and we’re going to not only turn this ship around, but make it the shiniest ship anyone has ever seen.” Rally your troops by giving them a reason to march into battle, not by reminding them of lost wars and casualties.

4) Own the problem and deliver results. You got the data, you’ve root caused the issue, you got the help you needed, and you have a plan to fix things. Now it’s time to implement change. Start from the bottom and work your way up. Remember to “eat the elephant one bite at a time”, or as one of my favorite Senior Engineers is fond of saying, “keep chopping wood until the tree falls”. Start small, pocket quick wins and build on your momentum. Aim for incremental improvements and iterate quickly. Be flexible with your roadmap, and level-set expectations that allow you to make things better without running your team into the ground.

When you do deliver, and something that used to be bad is now awesome, do so with humility. Let the results speak for themselves, and thank your team and everyone who helped along the way.

Along the way..

.. Project a positive, forward-looking attitude. This has two very immediate benefits: One, it inspires confidence in your team and those around you, and two, it projects a high sense of ownership to your peers and leadership. It also earns you respect. Most, if not all people, would rather hear someone say “Here’s Johnny or Kate (again, random names) — look at how they’ve come in and drastically improved such and such”, instead of hearing “All they do is complain about how bad things are because someone else made them that way”.

Even if pressed for precision answers on why something is the way it is by leaders outside the organization, no matter how senior, and no matter the severity of the situation, your answer should be somewhere along these lines: “Regretfully, this project/situation is not as successful as we’d like it to be. Here is our plan to raise the excellence bar in the next 2 weeks/6 months/1 year, or whatever the time may be”. The situation in which you will be asked to give immediate solutions to a serious problem you’ve just stepped in is extremely rare.

However, if it does happen, don’t be tempted to say “This precedes me”, or anything along those lines. Say you do not have an answer (because you don’t), and it is your priority to fix whatever is broken. Those same senior leaders asking the tough questions know you just got there, and you don’t have all the answers. They will appreciate your candor, and when you do deliver results, without laying blame at anyone’s doorstep, they will matter that much more.

And — in the rare situation when a new employer or manager was less than forthcoming with you about the problem space, despite you asking all the right questions up front, know that you have every right to leave and leave immediately. However, keep your dignity intact. Stay respectful, do what you can to improve the situation while you’re there, however brief, especially for the benefit of the folks that work for you. When you exit, exit gracefully and without making a lot of noise. Sometimes life just deals you a bad hand. Fold, smile, and go all in next time, when the cards are good.

(cross-posted at booleanzen.com and LinkedIn.)

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I’m a devoted father and husband to an awesome family, and a Software Development Manager and hands-on technical leader and Engineer in my spare time. For more information about me, please visit my LinkedIn profile, or www.booleanzen.com.

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