Succession is a very real concern for every organization — or at least it should be. Here’s the thing — when it comes to the topic of succession, it’s not a matter of if but when. No leader can lead forever. Failing to plan for the inevitable is irresponsible, but failing to execute the plan is tantamount to leadership malpractice.
Let me be clear — successions fail for one reason: a lack of leadership. Companies, boards, and their advisors who fail to successfully transition a leader (regardless of level) tend to focus more on silly processes than on the need, the people, and the culture. I’ve seen many corporate succession plans, but rarely does the readiness for succession match the readiness of the planning process.
Many otherwise savvy business people don’t understand succession as well as they would have you believe. They focus on optics, politics, and convenience more than on delivering the right outcome. Planning isn’t the end game; it’s the jumping off point.
In my job, I normally work on 6 to 10 new Fortune 500 CEO succession engagements each year. I’ve witnessed the best and worst of succession philosophies and practices, and I can assure you that more companies get it wrong than right.
While most organizations have dealt with succession planning at some level, they rarely touch all the necessary constituencies with appropriate timing and care. Succession needs to be part of the values, vision, strategy, and culture of an organization. It must be embraced by leadership, communicated to the workforce, and understood by external stakeholders. It must be viewed as a step forward and not a regression.
While many will overcomplicate succession, others tend to trivialize it. The truth is, succession is a blending of the art and science of leadership, people, positions, philosophies, relationships, culture, and a certainty of execution. The following are three points to keep in mind as your organization addresses succession.
Internal vs. External — All the leadership development programs in the world won’t ensure an internal candidate will be the right person for the job when it becomes available. It doesn’t matter whether the succession candidate is internal or external — what matters is whether they are the right candidate to lead the organization.
Process vs. People — A plan doesn’t succeed an outgoing leader, a person does. Succession is more than planning, as plans don’t develop people, experiences do. The incoming leader must do more than assume a leadership position or title; they must actually be willing to lead and capable of leading the organization through the present and into the future.
Don’t Pass the Buck — Succession is not an HR problem; it’s a leadership problem. Succession of any position is a complex collaboration between diverse constituencies. It’s more complex than recruiting or development. Succession must be a cultural imperative aligned with the core values of the enterprise, or you’ll be engaging in little more than a rolling of the dice.
Bottom line — organizations that make succession a priority are more successful than those that don’t. I’ll leave you with a quote from John Maxwell, “There is no success without a successor.”
Mike Myatt is a noted leadership expert and author of Leadership Matters — The CEO Survival Manual. As a thought leader and columnist on topics of leadership and innovation, his theories and practices have been taught at many of the nation’s top business schools, and his work has been noted in several publications including Psychology Today, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur, and Chicago Sun Times. He also authors the N2growth Blog, recognized as one of the top leadership blogs on the Internet. For more info go to www.n2growth.com.