Succession Development Road less traveled

The Road Less Traveled to Succession Success

Paul Heagen Authenticity and Vulnerability Leave a Comment

What are the milestones in making sure our succession candidate is ready to step up to the CEO role?

A good friend of mine called me a few weeks ago to toss around some ideas for one of his clients who was wrestling with what “mile markers” would best help prepare the person being readied for the top job.

Milestones, to me, sounds like knowledge and skills. And that’s certainly part of it.

Except, CEOs rarely fail because of a lack of business knowledge or skills. 

David Dotlich, author of the seminal Why CEOs Fail, and who wrote the foreword to my co-authored book The Leaders Climb, nailed it years ago when he attributes several celebrated CEO failures to personal behaviors, notably a lack of emotional intelligence.

Yes, we often overlook that, too easily taken by someone’s drive or ability to deliver results on a particular project or narrower business focus. We spackle over the stress cracks in personal behaviors, hoping they will not reappear once someone is at the top.

So, can we exercise someone’s emotional plasticity as part of their succession development? Yes, as long as we’re honest about letting the process reveal whether they are the right person, rather than using the development process to check the boxes for a decision we have already made.

1. Ability to provide vision and overall guidance to a highly diverse team. The test here is not their ability to drive it themselves, but to light up people not always like themselves and provide just enough touch to keep it moving and on track. The outcome is not the only measure; it is how well they run the team.

2. Making the tough calls. Conditions where the data is not always there or the case can be made either way. Do they push through that uncertainty and rally people to whatever decision is made? Have they hired and fired with courage?

3. Openness to learning. Do they welcome having a leadership coach, and embrace the value of 360-degree assessment? Having a culture of learning starts at the top. If they think they have now learned what they need to do the job, they probably should not get the job.

4. Creating white space and vacuum rather than filling it. Have them take a lead role in an off-site planning meeting.  Look to see if they give people room or have all the answers themselves. Can they sort ideas and develop a clear line of sight between vision and the actual activities of the business, challenge the status quo, ask the right questions?

5. Freedon to fail.  This may sound odd – and it is most often overlooked – but one of the milestones ought to be to put the person in a position where they could fail, even likely fail. It will test their emotional stamina, their willingness to learn from failure, and they will gain respect from others if they handle that failure with humility, introspection and optimism.


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