How to Blame Your Predecessor
(Or the art of throwing the previous regime under the bus.)
By Bob London
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 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 (Fig. 1) to help executives calculate their available Blame Window:
Here is a fictitious example to show how the formula works. Let’s say Bill S. takes over as CFO of a venture-backed start-up which has already raised two rounds of funding and is burning $75,000 per month with profitability two years away, soonest. After 6.5 weeks on the job, Bill discovers a serious flaw in the company’s pricing model that requires redoing the model–and therefore the business plan–from scratch. Bill’s predecessor held the CFO post for 2.5 years.
Q: Can Bill blame his predecessor?
A: Absolutely! Using the former CFO’s tenure of 30 months, divided by 2 equals 15, which is then divided by the 6.5 weeks of Bill’s tenure and multiplied by a Problem Magnitude Rating of 5. The result is a Blame Window of 11.4 weeks. Since Bill discovered the error in under seven weeks, he can throw the former CFO right under the old Greyhound.
Caution: this formula can be dangerous if not used judiciously. 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 company 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 CFO.”