CEOs: Don’t Sabotage Your Successors


February 20, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

A few years ago, I learned a very important lesson about leadership succession during a coaching assignment. In my work, I get paid only if my clients achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. I did get paid for this assignment, but I found that I would rather not have taken it.

A CEO asked me to coach his potential successor, the CFO. It didn’t take long before I just felt that the CEO just didn’t like the CFO. I had the distinct feeling that he really didn’t want this guy to get the job.

I brought it to his attention: “I just don’t think you like the CFO.” I said.

“He’s not my favorite person. But, I guess I like him O.K.,” the CEO told me.

I wasn’t convinced. “Look, it’s just you and me talking here. There is no reason to play games with me,” I said. “If you don’t want him to get this job, why are we even having this conversation? I don’t even know this guy. I don’t care if he becomes the CEO or not. Why would you want me to coach him … or to work on developing him as your successor, if you really don’t want him to have the job?”

“You’re right!” he grunted. “I think he’s kind of a jerk. I’ve never liked him very much … even though I’ve tried.”

“Then why are we having this conversation?” I asked again.


He replied, “I have to admit, he has made a tremendous contribution in helping our company. We have done a fantastic turnaround … without him it would have been impossible. If your coaching process can really help him improve his interpersonal skills, he deserves to be the CEO of the company.”

I was still skeptical. “Are you sure?” I asked.

“I think so … no, I am positive,” he replied.

When I heard, “I think so,” my gut said, “Leave now!” Unfortunately, I didn’t listen to my gut.

“If he makes great improvement in the interpersonal areas that we discussed, are you going to recommend him to be your successor?” I asked. “Are there any other reasons he may not get the job, such as a lack of technical or functional skills?”

“No, along with being great in finance, he is strong enough in all of the other functions to do a fine job as the chief executive,” the CEO concluded. “His only issues revolve around interpersonal behavior.”


I worked with the CFO for more than a year, and all but one of his raters said they saw him as making great improvements in interpersonal relationships. Can you guess who was the only person to see “no change?” That’s right: It was the CEO.

The CFO confronted the CEO and pointed out that everyone else gave him high marks for having improved his interpersonal relationships. Still, the CEO did not recommend him for the big job. The CEO finally … and very reluctantly … admitted that the CFO had in fact made great improvements where he was supposed to, which was of course clearly documented and hard to dispute. However, the CEO now concluded that the CFO lacked the “adequate marketing skills.” This was odd, as it was the CEO who had told me a year earlier that the CFO’s marketing skills were just fine.

The CFO was understandably upset. He had been promised the big job if he improved his interpersonal skills, which he had. He pointed out this fact, as well as the fact that he had turned down other, lucrative offers in anticipation of getting the CEO job. He went to the board and let the members in on what had happened. Basically, he told the board, “Either make me the new CEO … or write me an extremely large check.”

The board knew the CFO had been made a promise that was unfairly reneged on, and the directors opted to write an extremely large check. Because the CFO had improved, I was paid for my coaching, but I still regretted taking the assignment. Looking back, I feel I was used as a pawn in a political chess match. The CEO had given the green light to my being hired while believing that the CFO wouldn’t improve. When he did, the CEO pulled the “lacks marketing skills” card out from up his sleeve. All of our hard work … the CFO’s, his team’s, mine … cost the company lots of money and wasted time. (Well, actually, the time wasn’t wasted: The CFO did improve interpersonally, and he felt he could use in the future what he had learned during our work together.)


Since that coaching opportunity, I have had many other experiences that reinforce my belief that, if you, the leader, don’t want a potential successor to have your job, you are likely to sabotage or at least be less than helpful in the succession process.

The most famous quotation illustrating this point came from Henry Ford II. When asked why he didn’t promote Lee Iacocca to the top job, he replied, “Sometimes you just don’t like somebody.”

What can you, the leader, learn from this story? If you really don’t want a potential successor to get the job, don’t fool yourself or your potential successor. You will look for problems until you find a reason to cut him or her out of the running.


Before you write off a potential successor, look in the mirror. Maybe the problem is you. My friend Roosevelt Thomas is an expert in diversity. He addresses the favoritism issue by encouraging executives to differentiate between preferences, which are personal and relate to you as an individual, and requirements, which are organizational and relate to the job. If your dislike for a potential successor is just a matter of personal preference and the candidate is the most qualified person to help the company, get over yourself. Be open-minded about succession planning and try to help this person succeed.

It’s better not to jerk around potential successors. It’s not fair to them or to the company and shareholders. After careful analysis, if you don’t want this person to be your successor, don’t fake it. Don’t pretend you are interested in developing him or her for the job. Work with someone you can support. If you cannot find someone you can sincerely support, either stay in your job or look externally and start recruiting some new talent.

Readers: I would greatly appreciate hearing about any examples of how personal preferences can stop promotions and sabotage coaching.