What to Avoid When Choosing a Successor

By Marshall Goldsmith

Choosing a great successor is one of the most important accomplishments that a CEO can achieve. It is often presented as a paint-by-numbers process during which executives concern themselves with abstract concepts such as strategic fit, core competencies, and long-term shareholder value. However, the process of evaluating potential successors can often be as influenced by emotions as it is by logic! From a behavioral (or human) perspective, when evaluating potential successors, we should first look at ourselves.

Beware of the following three classic mistakes leaders make when considering potential successors. All three can cloud our objectivity and diminish our ability to evaluate candidates.

1. Why doesn’t he or she act like me? As a rule, successful human beings tend to “over-weight” their own strengths and “under-weight” their weaknesses when evaluating others. The more successful we become, the more we can fall into the “superstition trap,” which, simply stated, is, “I behave this way. I am a successful leader. Therefore, I must be a successful leader because I behave this way.”

All successful leaders are successful because of many positive qualities and in spite of some behavior that needs improvement.

As a leader, take a hard look at your own strengths and challenges. Recognize that you will have a natural tendency to forgive even large errors that resemble your weaknesses and to punish even small flaws that occur in your area of strength.

After making a list of your strengths and challenges, list the strengths and challenges of your potential successor. As hard as it may be, try to think like an objective outsider. Challenge yourself to recognize that the behavior that you feel is most important for the company may really be the behavior that is most important for you.

2. What doesn’t he or she think like me? It is hard for successful leaders not to believe that their strategic thinking is the right strategic thinking. As you proceed in the succession process, you are going to have to let go. It can be very hard to watch your successor make decisions that are different from yours. It is especially tough since, as long as you are still the leader, you have the power to reverse the decisions.

Your successor—not you—will manage your organization in the future. As hard as it may be, you have to let him or her begin to make a bigger and bigger difference in developing strategy.

As long as the organization will be headed in a positive general direction—and achieving results—try to recognize that your successor’s different path may actually turn out to be a better path.

3. Why doesn’t he or she respect and appreciate my friends? We all tend to overvalue input from people that we personally like and respect and undervalue the opinions of people whom we don’t love as much. Face it: your successor’s personal preferences are probably different from yours. As such, he or she will likely choose other trusted advisors.

Invariably when transition occurs, some of your friends may lose status or power and may end up leaving the company. This can be tough—both for them and for you.

The bottom line: Respect your successor enough to let him be himself, follow his own path, and choose his own key advisers.

Author Bio:
Marshall Goldsmith is a world authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior: for themselves, their people, and their teams. Dr. Goldsmith is the coauthor or editor of 24 books including What Got You Here Won't Get You There—a New York Times best-seller, Wall Street Journal #1 business book, and Harold Longman Award winner as Best Business Book of the Year. His latest book, Succession: Are You Ready? is in the Harvard Business “Memo to the CEO” series.

You can learn more about this topic at these AMA seminars:

AMA On-Site:

Every one of AMA’s 170+ public seminars can be delivered on-site. This flexible, money-saving option allows you to train eight or more people, when and where you choose, at a low cost per participant. Click here for more information.

American Management Association © Copyright 1997-