Succession from one generation of leadership to the next is a period of opportunity and risk. Common sense, an inclusive listening tour, frank dialogue that invites all views within the board and from other key players, and a robust analysis of what the organization needs going forward are essential ingredients for this process.
But also be aware that many challenging and critical needs can be in plain sight and still go unaddressed. Why? Because over time, boards and their executive leadership can settle on an equilibrium—accepting or implicitly agreeing to work around fundamental tensions and difficulties, like the frog in a slowly heating pan of water. Sadly, these unspoken challenges can substantially undermine the vision of the organization and the hopeful rhetoric of the search. If they are not addressed in the succession process, they will still be present when the new team is in place. Having missed the opportunity to vet them, they will be that much more entrenched.
Examples of these unspoken challenges are revealed in these stories of our experience recruiting chief executives and their successors for three different organizations. In the first two examples, there was a span of about eight years between the searches. In the third example, it was less than two years, for reasons that are explained. The contrast in what was needed the first and second times around is striking.
These are mostly happy stories. In each case, our client was prepared for an unvarnished look at the circumstances that would likely shape the next chief executive’s tenure. As they signaled that readiness and welcomed a frank give-and-take during the recruiting process, strong candidates stepped forward. Before hiring the new CEO, they were able to establish a common understanding of the challenges they would face together. Those foundations paid dividends in the performance of the organization and the chief executive, sooner or—as shown in the third example—later.
Leveraging a unified board and a favorable funding environment.