Dealing with the Fires You’ve Inherited

At some point in your executive career, you’ve probably walked into a new role in a new organization only to be met with a total mess and a “Good luck with that” welcome mat. This is where most of us find ourselves at the beginning of our career, and we dive in with every intention of cleaning up the mess once and for all. Of course, with experience comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes the knowledge that not every mess can be cleaned up entirely.

If you’ve recently found yourself in this position, or you’re hoping to plan for the day you will inevitably encounter this problem, there are a few things you should know about inheriting (and putting out) other executives’ fires.

Evaluate the Fire Before You Extinguish It

On a day-to-day basis in any leadership role, you’re going to deal with “emergencies” that crop up and steal the limelight from the good work you’re trying to do. These emergencies and problems are even harder to handle when you’re unfamiliar with them and the organization in general. Because of this, your sense of immediacy when it comes to dealing with these problems will be on high alert. But before you throw your energy into a problem, ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Is there someone else in this organization who would know more about this?
  2. Is this the root of the problem, or is this a symptom of something bigger?
  3. Can I handle this quickly and by myself?
  4. Can it wait?

Whether you’re dealing with a system-wide software crash or a poorly-received order, odds are (being new in the role) you’re not the right person for the job. Establish yourself as a leader who respects the abilities of your peers and asks someone to help you (or to handle it).

It’s also important to consistently focus on the big picture. Is that system-wide software crash the whole problem or does it indicate the need for new computers or for more IT help? Is that order-gone-bad just a delivery fluke, or an indication that previous management didn’t put much emphasis on customer satisfaction? While you’ll need to fix the problem, you also need to think about what caused it in the first place.

Probably most importantly, though, you need to consider each problem in terms of what it will cost you as the executive. If you can do it quickly and do it alone, it’s probably something you should take on. But if you think it can wait until you have more time or until you understand the problem better, that’s a judgment call you’ll have to make.

If you’re inexperienced, this is going to be a major trial-by-fire; it’s even difficult for more experienced executives. But these four questions should help guide your judgment and make the transition into your new role as easy as possible.

Don’t Put Yourself Out

The final (and most important) component to taking on someone else’s mess is learning when to just let it go. Letting go doesn't have to be permanent and it doesn't have to mean defeat. Many executives, young and old alike, bend over backward trying to fix a problem that just can't be fixed… right now… and end up going nowhere fast. Identify the situations that are creating the most damage, fix what you can and delegate when possible. As you gain transaction on those problems that you can change, some of the other ones (usually older) may simply become less problematic. The trick is to not stand still because problems in aggregate seem insurmountable but to keep incrementally moving forward.