The HOW is as important as the WHO

Untold hours of speculation, wasted energy, and unfocused actions occur within organizations every day trying to solve the 'mystery' of leadership succession. The competitive pressure of a global marketplace simply do not allow the luxury of employees spending their time in unproductive effort.

There is a better way!

Start by accepting the fact that:
  • rumors run rampant throughout all organizations all the time
  • speculation on who is going to the next CEO and how she/he will be selected go on every day
  • every employee has an opinion of who the next leader should be and why he/she should get the job, including some who think they should be selected
  • HOW the selection will be made and the criteria being used to make that decision are murky, at best
  • the absence of information creates misinformation
  • employees frittering away their time and energy in speculations, rumors and guessing is a colossal waste of resources.
Step 1: What expectations must be met by the new leader?
Leadership succession provides an excellent opportunity to revisit the future direction of the organization. Those responsible for making such decisions should take the opportunity to clarify and reiterate where the organization wants and needs to be in the future. What is the future direction of the organization towards which the next leader is expected to 'lead the charge'? What markets, products/services, competition, financial expectations, growth, acquisitions/mergers, etc. lie ahead? Be as specific as the 'crystal ball' will allow. H.W.I.K.I.W.I.S.I? - how will I know it when I see it- provides a set of lenses through which the future direction can be concretely described.
Step 2: What criteria will be used in selecting the new leader?
In light of the future direction of the organization, what concrete, demonstrated capabilities must the new leader possess that increases his/her likelihood of success? Most discussions include such descriptors as:

  • visionary
  • global thinker
  • functions well in ambiguity
  • participative
  • good listener
  • commanding presence
  • open to influence
  • market wise
  • extremely intelligent
  • superb business intellect and skill.
Reviewing the typical list of descriptors, one is struck with "what do each of those statements mean? " H.W.I.K.I.W.I.S.I (How Will I Know It When I See It?) must apply here as well. Past behavior is an excellent predictor of future behavior. Many organizations take the initial list of descriptors of the type outlined above and clarify each of the by developing indicative behaviors for each.

Take each of the selected descriptors and generate 2- 3 specific, observable behaviors that describe, concretely, what that descriptor would "look like" in the day-to-day world of the business. For example, "open to influence" might cite:

  • encourages the input of others
  • listens in a way that people feel free to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal
  • summarizes what she/he has heard to insure understanding.
If you can't define the descriptor in concrete behaviors, how will the leader be evaluated? How will she/he really know what is expected? Do you really need a capability that you cannot define?

Step 3: Inside or outside?
In light of the results of steps 1 and 2, determine if you intend to fill the position from within the organization; or, will you have to go outside the organization; or, will you consider both alternatives in your search for candidates?

Most organizations would prefer to make the selection of the next generation of leadership from within the organization for a host of very good reasons. But, at this point, you may not know if there are qualified candidates within the organization. Clarify your preference of candidate source and then find out if you have qualified internal candidates. While you may have hunches regarding potential candidates- and hunches are valuable- don't rely on hunches- find out! How?

Step 4: When all else fails, tell the truth!
  • the future direction of our company is...
  • in order to lead the company in that direction, my replacement must have these demonstrated capabilities...
  • if we can do so, we will fill this position from within the company
  • we are now beginning a process of examining our internal talent to determine if we do, in fact, have qualified internal candidates
  • I'll keep you informed as we progress
Yes, I do. Would you prefer employees wasting their time and energy in speculation and guessing, usually incorrectly?
Step 5: Search the potential talent pool. Armed with a clear picture of the future direction of the organization and the demonstrated capabilities required to lead the organization to that future, assess all potential candidates within the organization- not just your "short list". "Cast the net" as broadly as possible.
If your organization has an effective career development program, some employees will have already identified themselves as aspiring for the position. In addition, call on other leaders and managers to provide names of potential candidates.

Assessment, to be effective and credible, must be data-driven so that the right decision will be made.

Gut hunches
Past performance
Peer feedback
Appropriate assessment instruments
Demonstrated behaviors.
data-driven assessment

You may, in the case of such a critical decision, want to consider retaining external resources to validate your internal assessment. It also provides another way to ensure that this entire process is viewed as fair and credible by your employees. A number of firms (not including the author) provide such services. In your search for such assistance, ask:
  • What is their experience?
  • Are they ethical?
  • Are they knowledgeable?
  • Are they competent?
  • Are they respected?
  • Are they proven?
The assessments methods that you choose should be made available to all key leaders that you have identified as well as all who have expressed interest in "moving up" within the organization.

Step 6: Tell all involved the results. Upon completion of assessment of employees, each employee involved must receive feedback on his/her results. Whether or not the person 'makes the cut' doesn't matter. Each deserves to know and understand what you learned about them.
Some will be told, "Based on these results, you are a strong candidate."
Others will be told, "Based on these results, you will be a strong candidate in 3 or 5 or 7 more years." Others will be told, "Based on these results, you are well-placed where you are now, and are not likely to be a candidate in the future."

There is some risk, but in my experience it is a very minor one. If the process is credible, the risk is very low. At any rate, if the person is going to leave, don't you want that departure to occur now, when you have time to manage it, rather than when the new leader takes over? Step 7: Make the decision and develop a transition plan with the person selected. Once the decision is made, hold private discussions with the person selected and work together to develop a transition plan- announcement, how will the work be allocated during the transition, etc.- from the point of decision through the person moving into the position.

Step 8: Announce the decision and transition plan. After one-on-one discussions with the "leading (in your mind and theirs) candidates", publicly announce the choice and the transition plan. RESULT: Speculation and rumors, which have declined dramatically during earlier steps, are gone!

Step 9: Make the transition plan work! A Case Study
In the late 1980's, a FORTUNE 100 company in Pittsburgh faced the retirement in four years of both the Chairman (CEO) and Vice-Chairman (COO) at the same time. The two incumbents used a process very similar to that outlined above. Working with appropriate external Board of Directors members, two internal candidates were selected. One of the two would become CEO and the other would become COO- as yet undetermined. The Board of Directors mandated that the four- the incumbent CEO, and COO and the two selected executives - work together over the next two years to make the transition.

The two selected executives were told that one of them would become CEO and the other the COO. The choice of who would take which role was to be decided based upon a recommendation, to which the two agreed, to the Board of Directors.

An "Office of the Chairman" was created in which the four executives were located next to each other. They worked closely together on virtually every issue and decision for two years. When the incumbent CEO and COO retired two years later- at the same time- their replacements were installed in the roles the two of them decided were best for the company.
How did it turn out? In the words of the retiring CEO, "like a warm knife through butter".

Final thoughts
Employees want to know:
  • where their organization is going and why.
  • who will be leading them and that the way in which that choice is made is as important as who is selected to lead them.
  • that the process of selection is credible.
  • that those interested in the leader position were given fair consideration.

That's all! Organizations simply don't have the time and luxury of wasted energy in speculation, rumor-mongering and uncertainty. An effective, clearly stated, and data-driven succession planning process reduces if not eliminates an enormous waste of resources that exists in too many organizations today.