Changes at the Top: CEO Succession Planning

February 7, 2017

Business Succession Planning: When to Start?

Harry Levinson, who ran the well-respected Menager Clinic for Senior Executives, once asked the new president of Brandeis Univesity, “Whom have you chosen as your successor?” Another member of the faculty became quite agitated by Harry’s question, considering it was the first day of the new president’s reign. The president, however, wasn’t rattled. He understood the wisdom of the question.

This anecdote appears in my book Just Ask Leadership: Why great managers always ask the right questions. I cite it here because it’s a story I find myself telling (and needing to tell) quite often. So many of the leaders I coach haven’t given enough consideration to succession planning–for themselves and their direct reports. These leaders put themselves and their organizations at great risk. Succession planning isn’t something you can, in good judgment, put off. It’s something to start immediately–not just so you’ll have the right people in place in case of an unexpected departure, but because it helps improve day-to-day operations as well.

The Benefits of Succession Planning Tools

My clients often complain initially about the cost, time, thought, and actions necessary to complete succession planning–especially when it’s done throughout the organization. And it really should be done throughout the organization, or at least for the key positions. The process involves not only picking a successor but training that person as well, bit by bit, over time.

The benefits of succession planning outweigh the costs, in case you’re resistant, too. Here is what you stand to gain from succession planning tools:

  1. In the event the proverbial bus hits you or another member of your team, your organization will be prepared. In the case of Brandeis, a former president died suddenly in a hotel fire outside of Cairo, Egypt (hence Harry’s question). Another former Brandeis president was later struck and killed by a car. It can happen.
  2. Sudden deaths are unlikely, but sudden absences due to emergencies are less so. People have medical and family emergencies. During these emergencies, your organization can cope if there is someone already preparing to do the absent person’s job.
  3. If you get overly dependent on one person, you will suffer mightily if they quit, or you put them in a position to hold you ransom for a pay raise. Just the thought of either happening might give you a cold sweat. These scenarios can be avoided.
  4. If every one of your key folks is systematically training their replacement, you will have no issue with promoting your key people, transferring them, or letting them go because of performance issues.
  5. With succession planning, you can envision and plan for a different future for yourself without feeling like you’ll leave your organization in the lurch.

The Unexpected Benefit of Succession Planning

When you train your replacement, you get consciously competent about a job you may be unconsciously competent at today. You do your job better–both because you’ve had to teach what it is that you do and because you want to prove you’re worthy of the job you have.

Avoid the Black Swan

Despite the benefits I’ve listed here, leaders still resist or put off succession planning. Cost and time are factors, to be sure, but sometimes what gets in the way is the leader’s pride. People have a hard time imagining someone who can and will replace them. They don’t want to imagine it. Not after all the work, sweat, and time they’ve put into the organization.

Don’t let pride get in the way. And don’t underestimate the risk to your family, to your employees, to your customers, and to all your stakeholders if you were suddenly hit by a bus. Failure to do succession planning is what is called an off-balance-sheet risk that can utterly decimate an organization. It is or can be a black swan.

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