Four Years Remain
Here are some of the many ways successions may begin.
- “I want to retire by year's end.”
- “Our first succession attempt failed.”
- “Our organization might be acquired. If so, I will step down.”
- “We've got to develop and strengthen the board before I consider moving on!”
- “I will work until I die. They'll have to figure it out.”
These approaches to succession hold something in common. They all have a short time frame or no time frame at all.
- The first person is already in the year where they stop. It isn't uncommon to announce one's retirement in the Fall. That leaves just three months!
- The second resists restarting. They appear unwilling to reflect on what could be learned and are not redirecting their effort.
- The third thinks stepping down is the terminus of leadership responsibility. They are ignoring the aftereffects of acquisition.
- The fourth keeps delaying their planning, using the lack of board development as a smokescreen.
- The fifth is an oft-told tale!
When you imagine these organizations two years later, what status would you assign? Would they be flourishing concerns? Or, would you find stuck organizations, perhaps in decline, or with closed doors?
Succession does not go well when it is an emergency...
Shortened time frames grow from no longer having an adequate vision. If we intend to build enduring organizations for an enduring mission, the time frame should be longer. Succession does not go well when it is an emergency, or if we stuff it in a closet of good intentions until we are ready, or if we hand off the responsibility to an undeveloped board or an acquiring organization.
- First Year (sometimes this takes two years) – Lay the groundwork. Design the succession process. Open up the system for change.
- Second Year – Live through the process. Adjust the current CEO's job description to one of transition. Increase readiness and alignment for succession. Plan strategically with future value and succession in view.
- Third Year – Complete the process, adjusting as needed. Identify and onboard successors. Foster a knowledge transfer.
- Fourth Year– Manage the handoff. Disembarking of current CEO. Evaluate the effectiveness of succession and recalibrate for the future.
The widely used ADKAR model for change matches the progression of these four years and may provide a common language to use across your organization while planning succession.
- Awareness. Growing the recognition that change is imminent. Year One
- Desire. Developing an organization-wide preference for the coming change. Year One
- Knowledge. Learning that this change is possible and can be managed successfully. Year Two
- Ability. Gaining needed skills to implement change and navigate along the way. Year Three
- Reinforcement. Holding ground so that the change becomes the new reality. Year Four
My entrepreneurial career gave me experience guiding successful successions in organizations I served, led, or founded. And, I've been privileged to assist and facilitate a numerous successions in organizations led by others. Historical accounts of leadership succession provided a lot of guidance. Stories from the Bible, especially, delivered a treasure trove for gaining wisdom and developing process. Here is some of what I've learned.
Every Situation is Unique.
When an experienced executive begins a successful succession journey, they are in what I call "unicorn space." The differentiation they achieved in their industry combines with operational excellence and a unique setting and time of that leader's life and work, making "peer-less." Few arrive here. There is now no well-constructed boulevard to travel, rather a new pathway they travel just once. The leader who wants to drive the succession pathway successfully must pay attention to a unique context, not just basic principles for leadership and change.
Consider a contextual “for instance.” Succession comes more easily when the economy and the organization are moving up and to the right, even if that means a leader departs earlier than they prefer. Suppose they leave when trends point downward (or they are forced out because of these downward trends). In that case, a pervasive sense of failure covers everything, leading to more trauma: income loss, higher talent churn, and decline in operational excellence. If you are the successor, it is easier to onboard if trends swing upward. If trends point down, you readily get tainted as incompetent or the reason for failure. When we reach into history and study the contrasting bible stories of transition from King David to King Solomon alongside the final years of Solomon's reign and his transition to Rehoboam, we readily see this difference.
Succession Needs Clean Boundaries
An outgoing leader ensures that current operational excellence continues while not putting barriers in front of successors. These boundary lines are hard to put in place and must be well-defined. Failure to do so adds noise within organizational culture and drag to administrative processes. Future value is harmed. Everyone must work their way through the outgoing leader's meddling, the incoming leader's disregard, or both. Since criticism happens no matter what a leader does, outgoing CEOs should face criticism for detaching too early instead of holding on too long. Incoming leaders should be charged with showing too much deference instead of being viewed as the usurper because they moved too quickly.
At one time, a study of peaceful and cooperative presidential transitions in the U.S. provided prototypes to follow. More recent presidential transitions, however, teach us what not to do. Turning to the Bible, Queen Athaliah is an example of someone who unleashes havoc rather than loses power. The contrasting successful succession story of Moses' transition to Joshua is one of the best historical examples.
Legacy and Posterity Matter
A four-year deliberate work of succession planning is as if we forge steel. Our forging or failing makes for stories people tell in years to come, either as an extension of the carefully crafted culture that takes its mission seriously or as whispers that begin with "let me tell you what really happened..."
Concern for acquiring fame is not the subject here. Instead, it is understanding that a well-led succession slingshots the organization into the future. Successors are better equipped to handle new opportunities and challenges because previous leaders sowed good seeds and provided needed resources. When this forward-facing work remains incomplete, there is unnecessary difficulty and regret.
A recent historical case study is the peaceful revolution of the former Czechoslovakia and the way Vaçlav Havel managed an amicable division of his homeland into two nations. We can also draw insight from setting the Bible stories of King Saul and King David beside each other. Saul focused on preserving his power against all perceived and misperceived threats. David faced forward with a longer-term vision guiding him through numerous threatening scenarios. Saul and his successor, Jonathan, died on the same day. David was able to set a son on the throne and declare him the regent.
The prime task of a CEO is to ensure their successors have every opportunity to thrive.
The prime task of a CEO is to ensure their successors have every opportunity to thrive. If this is not in the long view and day-to-day operation, that CEO handicaps their successor from the start. Putting together a successful succession is the highest of leadership arts. We can do it if we craft this as the masterpiece of our leadership journey over time.
Let’s give it at least four years of intensive, missional effort rather than four months of a rushed administrative process because we can postpone it no longer.
Dr. Mark L. Vincent is Founder of Design Group International and the Society for Process Consulting. Maestro-level leaders is a Design Group International initiative. Mark is often found in meaningful conversation in the coffee shops in and around Boise, Idaho, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Reach Mark at: email@example.com
Dr. Mark L. Vincent will lead a workshop entitled “Four Years Remaining” at The Outcomes Conference 2022, April 26-28, Louisville, KY (Register today!)
Hear more from Dr. Mark L. Vincent on this episode of The Third Turn Podcast as he interviews Dr. Scott Rodin on “Maestro-level Leaders as Steward Leaders” – LISTEN