I found the recent Harvard Business Review article “A CEO’s Personality Can Undermine Succession Planning” an interesting read, and it raised a question for me: How can the issues described by the authors (having no succession plan or successor, going through the motions of designating a successor, designating the wrong successor, or undermining or discrediting the successor) be mitigated?
First, what role does the board of directors play in the process? The obvious answer is “a very large one.” For public companies, and private ones with elected or appointed board members, the responsibility of succession planning rests squarely on board members’ shoulders. It ranks alongside fiduciary responsibility and risk assessment as overarching board duties. Board members cannot allow the kind of behavior described in the article to stand or else they are abrogating their responsibilities. An active, well-informed board will ensure that a strong CEO, no matter what the circumstances, will not stand in the way or undermine an orderly transition of authority. To allow him to do so would put the sustainability and success of the organization at risk.
Second, there is no better way for the outgoing CEO to ensure his or her legacy than by working in the short and long term to ensure that the successor is properly prepared to take over the responsibilities of the office. I just stepped down as CEO of a not-for-profit organization after serving in that capacity for four and a half years. The succession process began over 18 months ago when I informed the governance committee that I intended to retire on September 30, 2016, at the end of the 2015 fiscal year. Robust discussion at multiple committee and full board meetings resulted in our COO being tapped for the top spot. The public announcement was made in late January, and the “long goodbye” period, as it is commonly referred to, went smoothly. Why did it work? Because we both wanted to make it go smoothly, and the board was behind us 100 percent. Egos aside, the organization is better for it, and the community response has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Succession planning can be contentious or it can be orderly. The difference depends on all participants in the process being willing to put the organization first and work toward the common goal of long-term sustainability.