Effective succession planning requires significant company investment and senior managers who understand and are committed to individual development. In today’s ever-changing business environment, where lifetime employment is not necessarily desired and certainly not taken for granted, good succession planning helps high-potential talent acquire key leadership and managerial skills and is a useful way to retain important players.
Few companies are in the enviable position of General Electric or Microsoft, where positions at the director level and above usually have a minimum of two or three people ready to step in when the current jobholder moves on. Many companies do a decent job nurturing middle managers, but as the robust market for senior managers attests, meaningful leadership development stops well below the top. Even in companies with strong development programs, very few leaders will ever be qualified to run the company. General Electric had around 225,000 employees in 1993 when Jack Welch identified 20 potential successors; over 7 years, he narrowed this number to 3. As Charan notes, “In CEO succession, it takes a ton of ore to produce an ounce of gold.”Charan (2005), p. 76.
There are many challenges to developing the next CEO. To prepare candidates for a 10-year run in the top job, companies must identify candidates when they are around 30 years of age and expose them to the right challenges and mentors for a period of 15 or more years. Few companies have the skill, resources, or commitment to spot and evaluate potential talent this early and purposefully. What is more, most companies do not know how to provide their most talented managers with the kinds of experiences that prepare them for the CEO role. The development of the next generation of leaders requires creating challenging assignments and “stretch jobs” supported by coaching, mentoring, and action learning. Action learning brings high-potential individuals together to work on a pressing issue, such as whether to enter a new geography or launch a new product. It forces emerging leaders to look beyond their functional silos to solve strategic problems and, in the process, learn firsthand what it takes to be a general manager. Unfortunately, however, many companies still view succession planning as primarily a human resources function and equate leadership development with rotating candidates through multiple functions or cultural assignments. Although valuable, such an approach does not prepare a candidate for the unique challenges associated with being a CEO. Functional leaders learn to lead functions, not whole companies. Moreover, a major drawback of rotation-based development programs is that potential candidates often do not stay long enough in one position to live with the consequences of their decisions. The very best preparation for CEOs is progression through positions with responsibility for steadily larger and more complex profit and loss (P&L ) centers. A candidate might start by managing a single product, then a customer segment, then a country, then several product lines, then a business unit, and then a division. Whatever the progression, overall P&L responsibility at every level is critical.
Leadership development is only part of the solution. Boards can greatly improve the chances of finding a strong successor in other ways. Senior executive development should be an explicit element in the charter of the board’s compensation committee. The committee should receive and create regular reports on the pool of potential CEOs and spend time getting to know the top contenders. Promising internal candidates should be invited to give presentations at board meetings and meet informally with directors whenever possible. Directors should also be encouraged to meet with and observe candidates in their own business operations. Finally, the full board should devote more time to succession; at minimum, the list of five top contenders, both internal and external, should be reviewed and updated twice a year.
The right process starts with the board’s commitment to make succession a permanent agenda item for the board and to meaningfully link succession with strategic oversight. Directors must thoroughly understand how the CEO adds value, what the key strategy levers are that the chief executive has or must create to achieve the company’s strategic objectives, and what skill sets and leadership attributes he or she needs to be successful. This requires that directors have a deep knowledge of the firm’s competitive position and challenges, its unique competences, as well as its cultural and administrative heritage. Only this depth of knowledge allows a board to focus its search on the key executive skills and past experiences needed to effectively move the company forward.
As noted earlier, no firm can rely exclusively on developing new talent internally. Even in the most talent-rich organizations, fresh ideas and new perspectives are sometimes needed. Executive search firms can help bring in new talent from the outside but can only be effective if the board does its homework. Search firms can open doors; identify and screen candidates; conduct thorough, fact-based due diligence on candidates; and create a bridge between the board and candidates; however, they cannot tell the board what leadership qualities and experiences it should look for. It is incumbent on the board, therefore, to provide the search firm with a detailed profile of the skills, experiences, and character traits it thinks the next CEO needs to have.
In all of this, the role of the outgoing CEO, if he or she has one, should be mainly consultative. He or she must be active in spotting and grooming talent, help define the job’s requirements, provide accurate information about both internal and external candidates, and facilitate discussions between candidates and directors. But they have no vote when it comes to choosing the successor: That decision belongs to the board.