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Are you REALLY serious about your succession process?

Jan 25, 2010 Business Daily, Leadership

“Look in the mirror. If you really don’t want your potential successor to get the job, don’t kid yourself. There is a very strong probability that this person will never get the job. You will just look for problems until you find a reason to disqualify him.
Don’t jerk around potential successors. This is not fair to them or to the company. If, in your heart, you don’t want the person to be your successor, don’t pretend to be interested in developing him for the job. Just work with someone you can support. If you cannot find a successor who you can sincerely support, go to the outside immediately and start recruiting some new talent!”

MARSHALL GOLDSMITH, Succession: Are You Ready? (2009)

Marshall Goldsmith, renowned executive coach and author, is unearthing a truth many would rather not see aired in his new book. He is pointing out that most leaders just aren’t that serious about succession.

That succession planning is vital for any organisation goes without saying. So many have come undone by leaving succession to fate or chance. A poor succession transition causes huge disruption for an organisation, and much energy is lost. Equally, quick-and-dirty rushed recruitments of key leaders often lead to bad decisions being made.

Like this column repeatedly advises, however, to understand management we must understand the human being. The reason many succession plans are unsuccessful is rooted in emotion. Many chief executives only pretend to play ball when it comes to looking for their successor. Inside, they are plagued by many fears that they won’t express, but which nevertheless have a profound effect on the process.

These include: the fear of being replaced by a more able successor who then goes on to mark a golden age for the organisation; the fear of being replaced by an incompetent who ruins the current leader’s legacy; the fear of being replaced by someone very different who undoes the good things done by the incumbent; and the fear of leaving a post full of status and power and becoming irrelevant.

Those fears and others knock around in the heads of incumbent leaders, and naturally they affect what is done. In fact when leaders are asked to choose their own successors they almost invariably choose someone who is good but not too good, who will protect the outgoing leader’s legacy without uprooting it, and who will rely on his predecessor’s guidance. That is why so many renowned leaders are followed by more bland, workmanlike ones.

In fact many leaders just play along with their boards but have very little commitment to making succession work. Some understanding of human psychology is therefore extremely important in this regard. The succession decision should never be solely in the hands of the current leader. Great organisations are always greater than even their greatest leader. A leader’s stint is just that: a period in the history of the organisation, a blip in the grand scheme of things.

No matter how accomplished you are as a leader, you work may count for nothing if you get your succession wrong. Too many costly mistakes are made, in grooming the wrong insider or bringing in the wrong outsider. These mistakes can never be eliminated, but it is certainly possible to improve the process of succession by having more open discussions about it, rather than shrouding the whole thing in secrecy and mystery.

If you want your work to mean something in the long run, you have to pay attention to its continuity after you are gone. Rather than resist the process on emotional grounds, chief executives should confront their fears and address them. Succession planning needs to become a bigger and better-run thing than it is at present. Today, it’s largely a pretend-process, clouded by unspoken emotion.

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