Qualifying the Next Successor: Part 2

Talent Management

December 14, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

In last month’s column we examined three questions regarding a successor’s suitability for coaching and grooming, the answers to which can be used to qualify an individual for succession into the top spot in an organization. This month we’ll discuss not that person’s preparation, but his, or in this case, her, reputation with key stakeholders, including board members, peers and key customers.

You may personally believe that a potential successor is perfect for the job, and you may do a great job coaching her so that she is ready for the job, but if the board decides not to hire her, it won’t matter. When you are coaching your potential successor, it is critical that she establish positive board relationships before the succession decision is made.

One of my potential CEO clients lost it in one meeting with the board, 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 few 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.

It is important for you, as a coach, 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 failed coaching experiences, I tried to explain to 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 this person and had no desire to help him get promoted. 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 was never going to be given a fair opportunity by them — no matter what he did or how hard he tried.

My final example of a stakeholder veto comes from a chief executive of the company’s leading customer. In this case, the CEO of the customer organization felt that, years before, he had been insulted by the potential successor, who was at the time in a sales role. Although this event had happened years earlier, 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 several of the members of the board. Although this candidate may well have been qualified for the job — and had the support of the CEO and his peers — he was not even considered for the position because big customers count.

Before spending time developing your successor, make a critical stakeholder assessment. Ask an important question: 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 the answer is no, and you cannot change key stakeholder perceptions, look for another candidate. When critical stakeholders have written off candidates, their succession possibilities may be over no matter what you, or they, do to change behavior.

If it eventually becomes obvious that board members or other key stakeholders have vetoed your favorite candidate and she is not going to get the job, your path is simple — start over. You, as the CEO, or the senior talent leader supporting the CEO’s efforts to groom a successor, will have to get over your disappointment and do your best to support another potential candidate who can be approved by the board.