We all know about the so-called honeymoon period in business: the time at the beginning of a new job when an executive can sit back and absorb and assess the way things work, who the power players are and where the bodies are buried–without being expected to make any great decisions or pronouncements. It’s a no-fault grace period which can last as long as several months depending on the role and company.
But there’s another less-talked about phase executives can leverage to their advantage: The Blame Window. This is the period during which you can legitimately hold your predecessor responsible for the challenges you are now facing.
One might naturally ask, as I did, how long after you’ve assumed a new role can you blame your predecessor? And how would one go about throwing him or her under the bus? My research yielded no credible answers to these questions, so I developed the following handy formula to help executives calculate their available Blame Window:
Here is an example–fictitious of course–to show how the formula works.
Let’s say Don takes over as President of a large, established enterprise (240+ years), which is struggling with how to maintain a leadership position in a global market. The company has significant debt ($20+ trillion) and a burn rate of about $441 billion per year.
After 4 weeks on the job, Don claims he “inherited a mess.” He bemoans the things that are not running smoothly, which is in turn giving employees fodder and motivation to leak negative stories to the media. Don’s predecessor held the post for 8 years.
Q: Can Don blame his predecessor?
A: Absolutely not! Using the former President’s tenure of 8 years, divided by Don’s tenure of 4 weeks, even when multiplied by the highest Problem Magnitude factor of 0.9 results in a Blame Window of 3.6 weeks. Since Don has already held the position for 4 weeks, he is already past the Blame Window. So his problems are his own. No blaming allowed.
Caution: If not used judiciously, this formula can be dangerous. Here are some important tips to remember:
First, make sure you get the math right. There is nothing more embarrassing than miscalculating the Blame Window and having the whole situation blow up in your face. Set some reminders in Outlook 90, 60, 30 and 7 days prior to the expiration of the Blame Window so you will know when to stop blaming your predecessor.
Second, do your homework before you start laying on the criticism. Was your predecessor revered or scorned? Respected or tolerated? Make sure to get these and other data points before you start spraying around accusations. The last thing you want to do is tear into someone who is a legend or, worse, someone who is deceased.
Third, make sure to select the right way of broaching the subject with your superiors. Here are some preambles to get you started:
Jocular: “Gee, if I’d known all this before I would have asked for a lot more money, ha-ha-ha!”
Nothing Personal, Just Business: “I’m sure <name of predecessor> was a good guy, but…”
Delicate but Direct: “I don’t want to cast aspersions on anyone, but now that I’ve gotten my feet wet…”
Mildly Annoyed: “I have to tell you I’m not sure what I’ve gotten myself into here…”
Threatening: “If you think I’m going to take the fall for any of this, you can just find yourself another President.”
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