When Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple in 2011, many were skeptical. After all, he was following the superstar and icon Steve Jobs. No mere mortal could ever measure up.

And Tim Cook and Steve Jobs could not be more different in style and approach. Where Jobs was charismatic, Cook is understated. Jobs was an innovator while Cook is an operator.

Yet today, Apple is stronger in virtually all metrics. Its stock price is ten times higher. The brand remains iconic. And Tim Cook has been hailed in Wired magazine as “arguably the best of the six chief executives that Apple has had”.

While you may not be facing quite the daunting task of taking over from Steve Jobs, it’s still a challenge to take on a new role from someone who’s seen as a superstar.

The good news is that you can make it one of the best experiences of your career by taking these three steps:

  1. Identify the new challenge
  2. Frame the effort
  3. Be yourself

Let’s start with identifying the new challenge.

No matter how great a job someone did, they can’t have done everything that’s needed

In fact, they probably succeeded because they focused on the top priority given the situation at the time. Since things change all the time, there’s plenty of scope for you to make your mark. You just have to identify the new challenge at this point in time.

For example, when my friend and colleague Gail was promoted to a bigger role, I was asked to take over her previous role as product manager. The problem was that she had done a stellar job, taking a product that was previously seen as a backwater and turning it into a respected effort. There wasn’t anything more to do. Or so I thought.

I went to my skip level boss and asked what success would be. I told him that I’m not the kind of person to be a caretaker who maintains the business as is. That I needed something to shoot for, a challenge to go after.

That’s when he told me “put us on the map in the Commercial Paper market”. We were virtually dead last in the rankings for what was one of the lowest margin parts of our business, and this was a challenge that my predecessor hadn’t had time to take on. But I did.

And this brings us to the second point.

You need to frame the effort – in two ways

First, you need to frame the effort for your team and stakeholders. That means talking about your group’s purpose, mission and strategy in a way that will motivate your team and energize your stakeholders.

This is where the new challenge plays an important role. Communicating the excitement of a new challenge was at the core of how I motivated the team and mobilized our stakeholders. We ended the year in the top 5.

Second, you’ll need to frame what you’re doing in the context of building on the foundations of those who came before you. When your predecessor is a superstar and beloved by the team, you don’t want to compete with or denigrate them.

And when you inevitably need to make changes to the approach or direction for the group, you’ll be better off to frame it as “things have changed… and here’s what’s needed now to continue the success we’ve enjoyed so far”.

Which brings us to the third point.

Above all, be yourself

You were chosen for your role for a reason. In all likelihood, it’s not for being an exact replica of the previous person in the role. You bring a unique genius to whatever you do based on your set of skills, strengths, experiences and perspectives. No one can do exactly what you do in the way you do it, and this is why you’re so valuable.

And even when someone has been successful using their approach, there’s benefit to changing things up and bringing a different kind of energy and set of ideas to a situation.

Coming back to Tim Cook, one of the hallmarks of his success is that he has stayed true to who he is. He didn’t try to be the product guru or to be charismatic. And he didn’t wear black turtlenecks. Instead, he took to heart the parting advice from Steve Jobs: “Don’t do what I would do. Just do what’s right.”

But what if your new boss wants you to keep things as they are?

Unless your boss is a micromanager, “keeping things as they are” is more likely to be about continuing to deliver successful results. In this situation, give yourself permission to take it slowly. But do take steps to find the sweet spot for the difference you can make.

Start by observing what’s working and what might be needed. Go on a listening tour both internally (with your team and stakeholders) and externally (e.g., with your clients and supply chain). Look for themes and datapoints, especially of improvements your team and stakeholders would like to see happen.

Once you discover where there’s a positive change that your team and stakeholders would support, you’ll be able to socialize it with your boss.

But there’s one mistake you must avoid if you’re going to be successful.

When taking over from a superstar, avoid unnecessary comparison

Of course, you can’t control what others think and say, so if they’re prone to compare you unfavorably to your predecessor, so be it. It’s far more important to focus on what’s in your control.

Here, I’m talking about the comparison you might be tempted to make. And that’s rooted in your self-talk. Don’t give in to those self-defeating comparison like “I’ll never be as good as XYZ was… the team won’t respect me as much as XYZ… I don’t know as much about the products as she does…”.

This kind of negative self-talk will drain your energy and confidence. Ultimately, this will lead you to underperform when you would otherwise might well have become another Tim Cook.

When you take on a new role from a superstar, remember to take these steps

  • Identify a new challenge – this is where you can make your unique contribution.
  • Frame the effort – talk about the challenge in a way that energizes your team and stakeholders and frame changes you’d like to introduce in terms of how the situation has changed.
  • Be yourself – you have something unique to offer and there’s no need to copy someone else no matter how successful they’ve been.

If you’re stepping into the shoes of a superstar, be patient with yourself and take heart. Like Tim Cook, you could be heading for the next great success in your career.

So, which of these steps would most help you establish yourself in your new role?

Leave a comment and let me know.