Natalie Michael and Brian Conlin: Your CEO Succession Playbook

Did you know that two thirds of CEO succession attempts are ultimately unsuccessful?

Most companies either have no plan to deal with transition, or aren’t happy with the one they have. What makes for such drastic failures? A lack of preparation, in many cases, or a focus on process rather than people.

Natalie Michael, CPHR and Brian Conlin, executive coaches with more than 50 years’ combined experience, wrote Your CEO Succession Playbook: How to Pass The Torch So Everyone Wins to offer insightful and digestible methodology for creating a succession plan that not only finds a viable C-suite replacement, but expands and strengthens business, too.

Tell us why you decided to write Your CEO Succession Playbook.
We continuously read statistics stating that CEO succession attempts fail and that half of boards and CEOs feel their current succession plan is inadequate. We were curious to learn about those that did succeed. What differentiates them? There seems to a gap in the existing literature on this subject.

Similarly, most of the current literature focuses largely on the process of CEO succession. To us, this misses two key ingredients for success—how to navigate the people issues and the politics involved. This focus was lacking in other, available resources.

We focus on the human dynamics that support success or derail the process. We devised this being/doing approach after interviewing more than 30 CEOs who have been involved in the process, including co-author Brian Conlin, utilizing trends we saw throughout.

Who is this book for?
The book primarily speaks to CEOs who are currently in the role, and who are key stakeholders in a CEO succession transition. However, anyone involved in CEO succession will benefit from the insights and toolkit included: board members (especially board chairs), incoming CEOs, human resources executive and high-potential candidates who want to know what is in front of them.

What are the most common pitfalls you see when it comes to succession planning—or a lack of—in organizations?
There are a range of mistakes that individuals and organizations make—each resulting in a slow or ultimately ineffective process and result. Some of the most common we see are:

  • Lack of forethought or pre-planning: Many organizations don’t know where to start in succession planning.This leads to avoidance, ultimately building pressure and making each step more difficult when it does begin.Not confronting issues is a poor foundation for success. Similarly, ignoring doubts and insecurities of all stakeholders can often plague a search process—especially if there is tension or a lack of clarity between theCEO and the Board/Board Chair.
  • Lack of talent management: Many organizations pay little attention to building the bench strength of their current team (and future talent). Talent management is a critical component for overall succession management and must be recognized as a business success tool. Looking to the current team for future leaders is essential. Italso allows the organization to challenge potential leaders with new opportunities that demonstrate their abilities resulting in a better-run business and more cohesive strategy execution.
  • Politics discounted in process: The politics of succession planning are important to consider; if left ignored,they can derail the process—or cause unsuccessful high potential candidates to leave the organization. How the‘winners and losers’ are handled during and following the selection process is critical, as is how the next CEO is announced, and how unsuccessful candidates are nurtured in their current roles. For example, executives tagged as the next CEO may be considered a “golden child” by others in the organization. They are seen as getting special treatment and the current CEO’s favorite. When this happens the CEO stops getting straight feedback and gets a skewed perspective on the candidate’s strengths and gaps, something that can lead to a costly hiring mistake later on.
  • Current CEO pressure or denial: It’s common for a CEO to feel ownership of the role—and organization.However, some departing CEOs may convince a Board that no one can replace them. Or, a departing CEO maynot adequately define their next chapter, failing to then make a positive and significant transition. Awareness of the emotional complexity around the departing CEO is important.

What are the six essential tools in the ideal ‘toolkit’ for succession planning?
A practical strategy for introducing the topic of CEO succession to your Board without prematurely accelerating succession;

  • A CEO success profile that you can use to benchmark candidates, and a model for determining who has the potential to be the next CEO;
  • Strategies for how to best develop future CEOs;
  • Advice on how to minimize ego-plays and power struggles and avoid “survival of the fittest” politics;
  • Self-coaching questions to help you do what’s right for your business;
  • A framework for the departing CEO who is considering their next career chapter.

Tell us about some of the most surprising—and inspiring—CEO stories you uncovered while writing the book.
We heard from a departing CEO who wanted to be intentional about how he set the incoming CEO up for success.He impressed us by staying away from the office for a period of time to allow the incoming CEO to have space,take decisions without his support and build his new top team. When they were together at a town hall meeting the former CEO was asked a question. Instead of answering, he passed the microphone to the incoming CEO and stepped back, very effectively signaling that he was the former leader and, as such, questions should be addressed to the incoming CEO from now on.

We also heard from an incoming CEO who was invited to a dinner along with her management team by the outgoing CEO. During the dinner, the outgoing CEO took great pleasure in recognizing the incoming CEO for leadership and abilities and signaled that she was now in charge. He also presented her with a framed picture that was a reprint of a news article about their main competition. He wrote on the article – ‘you will win’ and that created a rallying cry for the new team under the new leadership.

Finally, we heard an interesting story about a seasoned CEO who was engaged in his succession plan and made biased assumptions about the next in line, his star candidate. He told the Board about the candidate and found opportunities to see them in action. Time passed and he thought he has a great future leader to take his place. But when he talked to the candidate and shared his views he found out that they were not interested. He realized that if he had authentic conversations about succession prior, the problem would not arise. As we share in the book, a critical part of succession is to work closely with potential candidates, get to know them more deeply, have critical and authentic conversations and listen closely to their responses. Don’t assume.

What benefits are reaped from CEO succession planning early? What is the ideal timeline for beginning a search… and why should that begin before a candidate is truly required?
Starting early allows you to avoid the politics of replacement. It also avoids challenges that come from a lack of preparedness and minimizes the emotional charge that can come with last minute high stakes selection decisions.

Starting early allows the CEO to drive the process at the start and to set the context as future proofing the organization, creating opportunities for leadership and building the talent needed to implement the future strategies. This approach defuses the emotional issues around thinking about succession as merely replacement.

Perhaps most importantly, starting early ensures that succession planning becomes a natural part of the talent management program. Developing talent takes time (not a year or two, but a career). The CEO and Board can focus on the future vision and needs of the organization and begin to develop people that match those needs. The result is a high performing team and a much better working relationship for all.

How can boards—and CEOs—begin to shape a compelling message that will speak to the most attractive C-suite candidates?
There are three primary ways to achieve this:

  • Demonstrate caring throughout the process: this is not simply results-driven: it’s about individuals, their careers,and building the strongest-possible team both for the current organization and in the future.
  • Focus on the incoming CEO’s future and their alignment with the organization’s future. Show them how they see the organization evolving over time and how they see the candidate growing into those future leadership needs.
  • Prove that the organization is forward thinking and dedicated to the team by focusing on talent development in the long term… not simply the next quarter.

You discuss the importance of truly listening to candidates. Why is this so important, and how can this skill, and ability, be cultivated?
Truly listening demonstrates interest in the person, their career, their future. It’s common for the departing CEO to talk too much and not ask enough questions to truly gauge a candidate’s potential, and interest in the role. The departing CEO also needs to listen deeply to uncover potential fears and insecurities because in the end it’s the issues related to candidates’ “whole life” and their potential worries that can derail them. Many of the CEOs we interviewed identified listening and coaching candidates as an area where they wish they were more effective.

While managing the day-to-day activities of an organization, how can C-suite leaders, and boards, work to ensure a healthy culture for future hires (and successions)?
There are so many techniques, methods and considerations when developing a healthy company culture. One place to start is by changing the organization’s mindset about succession from simply replacement to a business advantage.Future opportunities and growth plans can—and should—be linked to development opportunities for team members and leaders.

Considering the relationship between the CEO and Board is also paramount. There should be regular, open dialogue about future needs of the organization and individual, personal plans, and people development. Future talent should be introduced to the Board as much as possible, thus offering real responsibilities to deliver on.

Ultimately, it’s essential to support and mentor future leaders. Demonstrate to your team that you are invested in their future.

For more information about succession planning, and Your CEO Succession Playbook, visit waterfront-partners.com.

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