The Importance of the Board in the Succession Process

By Marshall Goldsmith

Two of a leader’s greatest challenges are first, knowing when to step aside, and second, preparing his or her successor to take the helm. If you handle these challenges properly, it’s likely that your successor will be greeted with applause while you bow out gracefully.

Wrought with challenges, one of the most critical decisions is your choice of successor. You may personally believe that a potential successor is perfect for the job and you may do a great job in coaching her, but if the board decides not to hire him or her, it won’t matter. It’s imperative that the person establish positive board relationships before the succession decision is made.

One of my potential CEO clients, “lost it” in one meeting with the board. He got angry, tried to prove a board member was wrong, and succeeded in alienating several important people on the board. This type of damage is hard to repair. A year later, when I interviewed board members about this candidate, a couple of them brought up this event. Even though the candidate’s behavior had been stellar for the past year, the event was “stuck” in their minds and was seen as symbolic of the executive’s negative behavior.

As a coach it is important for you to thoroughly prepare your successor for board meetings. It can be useful to have detailed discussions about the preferences, views, and quirks of each board member.

In other cases a potential successor may have fine relationships with the board but be sabotaged by peers. In one of my “failure” coaching experiences, I tried to explain to the candidate’s peers how my job was to help a candidate achieve positive, lasting change in behavior—not only to improve his effectiveness in his current position but to help him prepare for a potential promotion. It was clear that the peer group basically hated the person and had no desire to help him get promoted. In fact, a few made it clear that they would be much happier if they could help him get fired!

This person was eventually removed from serious consideration for the role of CEO. It became clear to the existing CEO and the board that he had been “written off” by many important peers and would never be given a fair opportunity to succeed, no matter what he did or how hard he tried.

My final example of a stakeholder “veto” came from a chief executive of the company’s leading customer. In this case the CEO of the customer’s organization felt that he had once been insulted by the potential successor, who was, at the time, in a sales role. Although this event had happened years before, the customer CEO had never forgiven this candidate and still considered him to be a total jerk. The customer CEO also happened to be friends with a couple of members of the board. Although this candidate may well have been qualified for the job—and had the support of his CEO and peers—he was not even considered for the position. Big customers carry a lot of weight!

Before spending your time developing your successor, take the time to make a thorough stakeholder assessment. Ask, “Will this candidate be given a fair chance, not only by me, but also by the key stakeholders who are critical to her future success?”

If this answer is “no”—and if you cannot change key stakeholder perceptions—look for another candidate. Once critical stakeholders have written off candidates, their succession possibilities may be over, no matter what you, or they, do to change the situation.

If it becomes obvious that board members or other key stakeholders have “vetoed” your favorite candidate—and that she is definitely not going to get the job—your path is simple: start over! You, as the CEO, will have to let go of your disappointment and do your best to support another potential candidate who can be approved by the board.

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.

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