What Any New Manager Can Learn From Stephen Colbert

Replacing a beloved and legendary manager? Take a page out of Stephen Colbert’s leadership playbook.

On September 8, 2015, when Stephen Colbert succeeds David Letterman as the host of The Late Show, he’ll have some pretty big shoes to fill. Over the span of 33 years, Letterman hosted 6,000 late-night talk-show broadcasts on two networks. In addition to being the longest-serving late-night talk-show host in history, Letterman was (and is) a cultural icon.

Colbert is wise enough to appreciate the difference between succeeding Letterman and trying to mimic him. Letterman’s set has already been rebuilt to suit Colbert, and he’s redesigning the show to fit his personality and comedic style.

As a new manager, knowing that you have big shoes to fill can be equally intimidating. But members of any new leadership team can learn a lot from Colbert’s approach. When you’re following someone with a long track record, it’s a delicate balancing act. These three tips can help smooth the transition:

1. Understand your team and how they really feel

Whether you’ve been recruited from the outside or groomed internally, realize that there can be a disconnect between management’s opinion of the workplace and employees’.

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that people’s opinions about workplace practices and their day-to-day experiences on the job depend on their level within the organization. Senior leaders were much more likely than frontline workers to view the company’s culture positively, for example, and much more likely to say the firm embraces work-life balance and recognizes the contributions of employees.

You may want to hit the ground running, but it’s wiser to proceed slowly and cautiously. Talk to your team and get a lay of the land first. Colbert sat down with Letterman one evening and asked him countless questions about the show and how it worked.

If you’re a new manager, you may not have the luxury of interviewing the person you’re succeeding, but you can talk to your employees and establish yourself as someone who wants to know what works and what doesn’t before you start making changes.

2. Be upfront about changes on the horizon

If one of your goals is to take your team to the next level, recognize that doing so may involve making changes to the group or the way it operates. In some cases, that may involve a few small tweaks. In others, drastic measures.

While Letterman was a comedic genius, Colbert understands that he needs to establish his own formula to attract viewers and keep The Late Show fresh.

The key is to be upfront and transparent about the change you plan to bring about. Don’t spring them on your team without warning.

For one thing, that sets them up for failure. You can’t expect your workers to understand, adapt and ultimately accept change if they have little time to prepare for it. Tell them what changes are ahead and, more importantly, why you’re taking that course of action. Help them buy into the shift.

Second, keeping employees in the dark when it comes to change is not a great way for a new manager to earn their trust. If they feel blindsided, they’ll wonder what else you have planned that you’re not telling them about. Effective communication is key! Allow them to ask questions, voice their opinions and come to you with worries or concerns.

3. Assess the existing talent and build your own team

Early on in your tenure as a new manager, you need to evaluate the talent you have on board and determine where gaps exist. You may find that your assessment of the team is different than your predecessor’s. The “A” players on the previous team may not be “A” players on your team.

When he took over The Late Show, Colbert brought over much of his creative staff from The Colbert Report. That’s extreme (and standard practice for the TV industry). But the point remains that, to implement your new leadership ideas, you need forward-thinking people with the talent and drive to rise to the occasion.

It won’t take you long to figure out that the employees in mission critical roles who constantly remind you, “That’s not how we used to do it,” are not going to help in this effort and will probably demotivate other staff members. If you can’t get them on board, you may need to get them out of the door before they undermine the work environment you’re trying to build.

Succeeding another leader — especially one with a legendary reputation — can be exciting but also challenging. Remember, though, that you were chosen to be the new manager based on your abilities. So don’t be afraid to flex those leadership muscles to present a new and exciting vision that motivates and reinvigorates the team.