Many see the key to success in succession management as identifying and then developing the CEO successor. Sure that’s important. It’s not just grooming your next-generation leader that makes succession management a success though.
Over the last few years, I’ve come to realize that there are two other critical elements to succession management. First, you have to engage the Board in the process and continuously guide them through the leadership transition. Second, you must also help your current CEO not just accept his/her retirement but actually embrace his/her “third act” in life. Oftentimes, these leaders have served their organizations for years – if not decades! – so letting go and moving on requires their embracing a new beginning.
The following provides a more detailed description of these three pillars of succession management. Just like you wouldn’t want one leg of your stool to break underneath you, you absolutely do not want any of these three pillars to be out of sync.
1. Board Facilitation – Since the CEO is the only employee who reports to the Board, of utmost concern during the succession process is having Board members clearly articulate their vision for the future and from there define the specific requirements for the chief executive position in line with this intended future. This enables fair evaluation and decisive selection of the successor.
Last year, I facilitated numerous meetings with several Board members who were tasked with identifying a CEO successor. Without this clarity, they likely would have conducted an expensive and unnecessary external executive search because they were assessing one internal candidate’s qualifications against the wrong selection criteria. Through the process, this became very clear, and six months later they unanimously voted to promote a talented and well-qualified Vice President they otherwise may have overlooked.
2. CEO Transition Support – One of the CEOs I’ve been coaching over the past year-plus has served his global association for more than 30 years. He is well-connected in his CEO community in the Washington, DC area, and he is well-regarded in his industry. While he was excited to see his direct report become the organization’s next CEO, he was reluctant to hand over the reigns because he was used to being “the guy” in many circles and his future path was still unclear.
Working together, we were able to chart his course for future consulting opportunities with the association as well as with other organizations while still carving out his valuable contribution to the association. During the transition, he has assumed a critical role mentoring the future CEO, and he continues to transfer his management responsibilities and direct relationships to this person one step at a time.
3. Next-Gen Leader Coaching – As I consult to various organizations, I often refer to what I call “role appropriate” behaviors. It is unreasonable to expect a Vice President to perform like a CEO until he or she is asked to do so, and especially while he or she is standing in the shadows of the current CEO. By definition, someone who is subordinate is subordinate. If he or she doesn’t get that distinction, then he or she is likely to be fired!
So why is it that people regularly question someone’s ability to elevate their leadership and be that CEO successor simply because they aren’t currently performing at the chief executive level? Probably because they are judging those individuals based on past performance instead of future potential. My job as a leadership coach then is to give these next-generation leaders the opportunity to shine. This regularly comes in the form of special assignments and choreographing conversations that would never happen outside of the transition bubble. In essence, my role is that of a screen writer and director all rolled into one, scripting the talking points for my actors and then supporting them from behind the curtain as they take the stage.