Succession Planning at the very top

 In Articles

The right CEO, for this company now.

There is probably no more important job for a company’s Board than selecting the right CEO.  And if the company has a succession plan aiming to groom internal candidates for the job, then it is critically important to select the right potential candidates, and ensure that they have, or develop, the right set of capabilities to be an excellent leader.

There is an abundant body of books and articles in business literature devoted to telling us what makes a great CEO.

With such a wealth of wisdom and guidance it should surely be a simple matter for boards to select their next CEO.  Problem is, which guidelines should we use? Should it be:

  • The four things that set CEO’s Apart? or
  • The ten Personality Traits successful CEO’s share? or perhaps
  • The three qualities a CEO must have to succeed?

These are just three of the many articles Google found when I searched “how to choose a good CEO?”

Of course, if this is confusing then we can turn to someone who has sorted through the data to provide us with a solution. At the World Economic Forum, Clarke Murphy, CEO of international Search Company ‘Russell Reynolds’, informed the gathering that his company had analysed 5 million leaders to find out what makes a successful CEO.  It turns out that the answer can be reduced to 4 pairs of “competing competencies” such as disruptive and pragmatic or heroic and vulnerable. 

Well, now we know. Next time we have to find a good CEO we can learn from the distilled capabilities of 5 million leaders … that shouldn’t be difficult. The hard work has been done for us. In truth, we know there’s much more to it than just that.

What is going on here?  Is this just the corporate equivalent of self-help books, or the front cover of “health magazines”?  You know the headlines: “Four steps to perfect abs”, or “How I lost 30 kilograms in 6 weeks and kept them off forever.

There is some of that: in a world where there is never enough time and too much to know, there is comfort in the notion that someone else has done the hard work, and we just need to apply their findings without giving it too much thought.  It’s also true that the proliferation of templates and tick boxes for compliance, performance management and company reporting, has the effect of conditioning us to seek comfort in lists against which we can create score sheets, and so show that we have applied our minds to important questions.

On the other hand, many of these articles are written by experts with substantial and justified reputations – and they contain insights and wisdom garnered from many years of study and practical experience.  There is much to be learnt and applied in almost all their work – if only to help us step outside of our preconceptions, and to relook at the issue of leadership with fresh eyes.

The difficulty really lies elsewhere: it lies in our desire for the silver bullet – the single formula, if you like, to help us get things right.  But there is no formula for selecting the right CEO.  And the key lies in the tag line at the top of this article.  There is no single perfect CEO.  There is only the right CEO, for this company for this time.

This is obvious in some respects: the heady entrepreneurialism of the start-up CEO may need to be followed by a driven, system builder in the growth phase, and she in turn by a merger and acquisition specialist to fuel further growth once the company has reached a mature stage of development. What is true of the phases of a company’s growth is also true in differing degrees of economic and political climate, industry and whether the company is thriving or floundering.

The good news is that all those experts have laid the table with a proliferation of important qualities that we need to look for in a new CEO.  The challenge and the opportunity for companies is to choose the specific and appropriate qualities that they need now.

At Thornhill, we have developed a process to help companies do this right, and to implement a development programme to ensure that internal candidates refine or acquire the most important qualities they need in their next CEO. And that can never be done by taking anyone’s numbered list of 3, or 4, or maybe even 10 qualities. What we have done is develop an item bank of qualities and capabilities useful in a CEO.

Rather than offer a one-size-fits-all package solution, we will sit down with the company, and work three questions:

  • What do you need your CEO to know?
  • What do you need your CEO to be able to do?
  • What do you need your CEO to be (what qualities and values should s/he display?)

As we work through these questions, we will together draw from the item bank those elements that work best for the company now – allowing us to develop a complex “identikit” of the ideal CEO for your company.

The next step is to use these qualities to develop a customised 360° assessment process to measure how candidates shape up against the chosen qualities as viewed through the eyes of the candidates themselves, their peers, direct reports and senior management.

From there, Thornhill would (if required) assist the company to devise and implement a development programme for the internal candidates, tailor-made to meet the gaps identified between the “CEO identikit” mentioned above, and the current capabilities of the potential CEO(s).  The programme is likely to include a combination of exposure to particular work experiences, some development of skills which may not have been part of the candidate’s previous jobs, and coaching to help with cementing learning and preparing the person for the challenges the CEO post would hold.

Progress is then measured half way through the programme and again at the end by repeat 360° feedback assessments.

Candidates selected and prepared in this way would be more likely to meet the expectations of the company and be in a position to hit the ground running, giving an extraordinary return on the investment and resources devoted to such a process.


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