60% of companies don’t have succession plans in place and yet this article suggests “the most successful CEO’s come from within”. It signals that many businesses take the approach that it’s hard work to build internal leaders and still relatively easy to go to market to find top executive talent.
This topic sparked my interest this week due to the sad passing of Steve Jobs and how Tim Cook, his right hand man has taken over the reigns as CEO at Apple. I also immediately connected with this article as I too, was in this position several months ago when I announced my successor. In my opinion, hiring an external candidate to take over from my role, as General Manager would have been a disaster. To learn the internal workings of what makes the business significantly different and gives it a competitive advantage is not easy to put into words or in the training manual. To groom and promote an internal leader was a long-term process and necessary investment to ensure a smooth transition.
My 2IC Megan Nicholson had worked with me for over 8 years and we had been working towards the goal of her taking over for a long time. When she asked me ‘where are you going’? I would brush it aside saying it didn’t matter, we had to make sure she was ready regardless of circumstances. I didn’t know when or where I was going, the important thing was the plan to ensure that the business would continue as she prepared to take the reigns.
This process of identifying and developing a natural predecessor was a big investment. Finding the right talent in the first place is always tricky! The goal is to match skills and experience, competencies and motivational fit which is rare to find in an individual, but to then try and determine it from an interview process is another skill altogether. In my case, it proved to be the right hire and our journey of development happened over many years and had the following ingredients:
- Core values must match – working with someone or an organisation that doesn’t mirror your core values can be an exercise in frustration at the best of times. It is critical that your potential successor demonstrates the necessary behaviours to lead from the front and execute the vision (not just the experience and results). In this case, Megan didn’t have the recruitment industry experience, however, she did display coachability, a strong desire to achieve and a dedication to making a difference.
- “Shop floor” experience – gaining experience from all areas of a business gives a holistic view of the organisation and a deep understanding of the competitive advantage of the business. It’s easier and often perceived as more genuine to sell the message if you’ve been there. Again, Megan started in an entry-level role that proved to be an essential step her development as she gained deep knowledge of candidate interactions essential for the business to succeed.
- High performance – your replacement must be a top performer. Being able to gain the respect of fellow colleagues and staff will be faster if there are consistent runs on the board. Of course, results without leadership isn’t going to work either, but quantifiable results is a solid platform to lead from. In one of my first leadership roles, I was running a team of 7 that included people all older than me. The night before my official first day, I remember great words of wisdom from my father telling me to show them the results I had achieved and how I could help them generate the same success. It worked – I’ve always taken the philosophy that age is irrelevant; numbers don’t guarantee attitude, commitment and desire.
- Key clients – introducing your successor to key clients and stakeholders gives them the opportunity to build these relationships without your constant presence, assistance and approval. I had clients that had only dealt with me for over 6 years and handing over that opportunity to account manage was a big step for everyone involved. It proved to be an essential step in building trust and credibility for future interactions.
- Leadership opportunity – about 4 years in and already one promotion, I gave Megan a Team Manager role where she would have overall responsibility for a team of Consultants and their performance. This stepping-stone was critical in her leadership development for the top job.
- Increase responsibility – like Tim Cook was given opportunities to lead the helm of Apple when Steve Jobs was absent, I gave Megan responsibility for the acting General Manager role on two separate occasions when I was on parental leave. These situations gave her full responsibility for the business and the opportunity to ‘test drive’ the role. This was an invaluable developmental step in the long-term investment.
- Make mistakes – all leaders in their rise to the top have to make mistakes, feel the pain and resolve the issue. Often, mentors/those higher up the ranks can see the writing on the wall, but without wanting to interfere and restrict a learning opportunity, you have to watch from the sidelines and be there to support in the fallout.
- Coaching and Feedback – absolutely essential for grooming a successor is honest and straight talking feedback on what’s working so they can keep doing it and what’s not working so stop doing it. This was a courageous process for me as having a stand-out performer for so long made it fresh territory to be back coaching on areas to improve.
- Timing and execution – when is the right time to hand over the reigns? Sometimes, it will come without warning, other times it will be a finite date in the future. The best strategy here is to be clear in the communication around the opportunity and it will happen. So often I interview candidates who say, “they’ll never leave” or “I’ll never get that opportunity”. It demonstrates the importance of communicating well in advance your intentions for someone to take over.
To develop your internal talent takes time, investment and patience. In my experience, a combination of recruiting, coaching and mentoring, in addition to ongoing opportunities was the right recipe for success. The fact that Megan and I only needed a week’s hand-over is testament to our relationship, open communication and shared vision and ethos for the business. I am completely confident that I left the business in the most capable hands…could you say the same thing if you left tomorrow?
“It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.” – Steve Jobs
nicoleunderwood works with great leaders, organisations and people to improve their results through hiring and keeping the right people. An innovative and holistic approach to attracting, engaging and retaining top talent.