Qualifying the Next Successor: Part 1

Talent Management

January 11, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

Last month I posed three qualifying questions you can ask to determine if behavior coaching may be useful in the development of your successor: Do you really want him or her to be the next CEO? Will the individual be given a fair chance by key stakeholders? And is the individual willing to make an authentic effort to change, specifically those in-spite-of behaviors?

Let’s examine how the answer to the first question — Do you really want him or her to be the next CEO? — might play out.

A major CEO asked me to coach his CFO and potential successor. But after just a few minutes, I got the distinct feeling the CEO didn’t like the CFO and didn’t really want him to get the job.

I was frank, and I told the CEO, “I don’t think you like this guy.

His reply didn’t come with a great deal of conviction. “He may not be my favorite person, but I guess I like him OK.”

“If you really don’t want him to get this job, why are we having this conversation?” I challenged. “I don’t 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 are right!” he grunted. “I don’t like this guy. I think that he is kind of a jerk.”

I asked again, why are we having this conversation? He said, “I don’t like him much, but I have to admit, he has made a tremendous contribution to our company. We have done a fantastic turnaround — and without him, it would have been impossible. If you can really help him improve his interpersonal skills, he deserves to be CEO of the company.”

I had misgivings about the CEO’s sincerity, but I worked with the CFO for more than a year. At the end of my assignment, he was seen as making great improvements in all his targeted areas for interpersonal change by 15 out of 16 raters. Only one person saw no change. Guess who that was? The CEO.

After the CFO confronted the CEO with his obvious improvement in interpersonal relationships, the CEO still did not recommend him for the job. The CEO reluctantly admitted the CFO had made great improvement — which was clearly documented and hard to dispute — but he now concluded the CFO lacked “adequate marketing skills.” This was the same CEO who told me the CFO’s marketing skills were just fine one year earlier.

Needless to say, the CFO was incensed. He pointed out that he had been assured he would get the “big job” if he improved his interpersonal skills. He mentioned that he turned down other, lucrative offers since he assumed he would get the CEO position. He went to the board, pointed out what happened, and basically said, “Either make me the new CEO — or write me an extremely large check.”

He was paid off by the board, which cost the company millions of dollars. Since he had clearly improved, I was paid for my work as his coach. But I still wished I hadn’t taken the assignment. In hindsight, I felt I was used as a pawn in a political game. The CEO believed the CFO would not improve, and then he could say, “Well, we tried to help him and he didn’t improve, therefore he is not ready for the job.”

When the CFO did improve, the CEO had to play the embarrassing “lacks marketing skills” card. My work, and the CFO’s great effort, ended up costing the company a lot of money.

Since that event, I have had other experiences that have reinforced my belief that if the CEO doesn’t want a potential successor to get the job, he or she should not, under any circumstances, suggest otherwise.

Don’t jerk around potential successors. It’s not fair to them or to the company. If, in your heart, you don’t want the person to be your successor, don’t pretend to be interested in developing that individual for the job. Work with someone you can support. If you can’t find a successor internally whom you can sincerely support, go to the outside immediately and start recruiting some new talent.