One of the initial decisions you face when you are promoted to a leadership role with direct report managers is whether to focus on building around the talent you just inherited or clean house and start fresh with a team that is most definitely yours. The stakes are high—and your success is intrinsically linked to their abilities and their willingness to sign on and support you and the new direction you define.

The answer to navigating this vexing dilemma is a firm and unsatisfying, “It depends.” It depends upon the mission the new leader is charged with—revolution or evolution—and it depends upon the leader’s personal preferences.

In my experience, most senior leaders have a distinct preference for one approach or the other.

House Cleaners and Furniture Rearrangers:

House Cleaners often go through the motions of “assessing talent” for a few months, but they rarely deviate from their intent to trade out the leaders for those of their own choosing. They are uncomfortable placing their trust in people they do not know or did not select, particularly when these people will determine their ultimate success or failure. If given truth serum, they will confess that they view old management as part of the problem and not part of the solution. House Cleaners often view themselves as revolutionaries and they believe part of the cost of winning the revolution is sacrificing the prior regime’s leaders.

The Furniture Rearrangers are often reformers but not revolutionaries. They respect the culture and appreciate people who know where the bodies are buried and how to keep things working. They are comfortable with the idea of building new relationships with strangers not of their choosing. If given the same truth serum, they might offer that chopping off the former head of the group was one part of the process of giving people a fresh start. These leaders view themselves as responsible for helping the good people already in place regenerate.

There is little doubt one approach sounds more noble and one sounds a lot more Machiavellian. In my own career, I have applied both techniques and only one worked for me: cleaning house.

My Own Experiences: Successes and One Big Misfire:

Intellectually, I much prefer the idea of building people than eliminating people. However, the situations I found myself involved in demanded speed, change and frankly, new skill sets and new energy. Or, at least I rationalized those needs as such. It turns out, I am guilty of and eminently comfortable being a revolutionary.

In the circumstances where revolution was called for—turnarounds or struggling start-ups—I evaluated the current talent and found some capable people worth retaining and a number of characters who merited elimination. This latter group tended to suffer from what I term: values-deficit-disorder. They blamed all of the ills of the firm and team on the prior regime and they failed to take accountability for their failures as managers. The few who authentically indicated where they went wrong and showed a deep commitment to changing were retained and turned out to be fierce loyalists for my revolution.

Alternatively, when I bowed to the nervous concerns of a team of top leaders more worried about retaining the culture (which reflected mediocrity) and slowly rearranged the furniture, I failed. The situation called for revolution and they wanted slow social change. Of course, in this case, I was culpable for both knowing better and agreeing to the pace and approach. While there’s a bit more to this story, suffice it to say that I spent too long trying to be someone I was not, leading in a way that I was not suited for, knowing that it likely would not work. I became part of the problem and was the wrong person for that job. Ultimately, the entire initiative imploded.

Lessons Learned—4 Key Things to Consider as You Debate Whether to Clean or Rearrange:

1. Know yourself. With no apologies, I know that I am infinitely more comfortable leading revolutions and doing it with people I choose versus people I inherit. I will take chances on the legacy leaders if they display the right character and skill sets needed for the future, but in general, I will clean out the team.

2. Know your mission. Matching your skills and personality to the mission is critical. Much as I learned, if you are a revolutionary and happen to end up in a new leadership role in a situation where everything is going right and revolution is not the prime driver, you will struggle. If the mission is to move slowly and deliberately, your primary challenge is to figure out how to support, not replace the people already in place.

3. Fight the rush to judgment. Even if your propensity is to clean house, there may be talent worth keeping. In all circumstances, take the time to get to know and assess the individuals and their fit for the future. My most loyal and effective supporters came from the ranks of the teams I inherited. They loved the fresh start and were grateful to have the opportunity to be part of a new mission.

4. Be fair and fast and never cruel. Most people know that changes will occur. Elongating the process or making false promises will hurt your credibility tremendously. The best revolutionaries are fast and fair.

The Bottom line for Now:

The choices you make on your direct report managers when you step into a new leadership role will determine your ultimate success. Match the approach to the situation and make certain you understand your charter: revolution or evolution. And most of all, learn from my mistake and do not sign on for something you are not constitutionally suited for and attempt to lead in a way that is contrary to who you are as a professional.

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Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

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