How Great Leaders Choose A Successor

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By Jas Singh

Perhaps the hardest decision any leader has to make is to identify a suitable successor. Whether it’s getting promoted, changing companies or even retiring, great leaders never stop caring about their followers.

Choosing the right successor is never something they consider lightly.

In ten years as a hiring specialist I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best known names in the world of business. And can honestly say that even the greatest leaders make the mistake of hiring the wrong successor.

We all know examples of CEO successions that have publicly failed. Companies such as Starbucks, McDonalds and Apple who all suffered dramatically by hiring the wrong person.

So how to chose? With the stakes so high, how do leaders ensure they appoint the right person first time?

Here are some ways how great leaders identify the right successor.

Mimic the brand, not the predecessor

The biggest mistake that companies make during succession planning (and often hiring in general) is trying to copy the existing leader. Trying to find someone who is the same as the predecessor.

Sounds like a sound plan at first. But with one big problem.

No two people are ever the same.

Seriously, its been proven. Once of the greatest things about life is diversity. Since the beginning of time there has never been anyone EXACTLY the same as you are now. No-one with exactly the same appearance, emotions, experiences, ambitions, interests and thought process.

You’re a miracle. That is impossible to copy.

The amount of companies I have worked with who have previously hired a successor “most like” an ex-superstar and failed is endless. It’s the fastest road to recruiting failure.

But the good news is there is another approach.

A better strategy to follow.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, great leaders lead with purpose. Therefore often the best route to follow when selecting the right successor is to find the person who embodies the company the most.

The person who is closest to the values, brand and beliefs of the company.

Take Apple for example. Their brand is all about one word – innovation. Steve Jobs embodied innovation. That’s why when Tim Cook was first appointed although he was a great leader many people questioned whether he was a true innovator. For Tim Cook to align with what we associate Apple with, he needs to keep innovating (Which BTW I think you’re doing pretty well right now Tim).

 

Ensure fair competition

Successful people are naturally ambitious. Great leaders often have a strong management team to chose from when it comes to selecting a successor. The problem is sometimes not selecting the right candidate but making sure the rest of the team is not dissappointed.

According to our research, over 70% of successions are closely followed with approximately 25-35% of the remaining team leaving within the next 18 months. Most people don’t like being overlooked for the main job.

The solution?

Good old fashioned competition.

You see, most people don’t mind losing out as long as they are given a fair shot and had full control of their own destiny. Forward thinking leaders are now laying down almost project based “job auditions” to see who has the skills for the main job.

For example I’m currently working with a large retail company that has a CEO who has been with the company for 15 years and is retiring next year. The board identified three possible candidates two years ago and since then each has been given a territory to manage – The Americas, EMEA and APAC. The objectives and targets were set out beforehand. The prize is the top job. The best person wins.

Funnily enough, the three candidates although competitive have also now developed a mutual respect for each other.

Great leaders give others the right to earn their position.

Always have a plan

A business not having a succession plan is like parents not having life insurance.

Most of the time things will be OK, but if for some reason the leader has to suddenly leave (health, being head hunted, family issues etc) the effects can be disastrous.

Great leaders see succession planning as an on-going process. They exist first and foremost to protect and serve their followers – and make sure that there is always a plan in place for an emergency.

Great leaders always have a plan.

Conclusion

Selecting the right successor is one of the biggest decisions any leader will make.

In other words, ironically, sometimes the biggest test of a leaders success is measured when they are not there.

Hiring managers need to make sure that they use the right tools and strategies to ensure they hire the right person.

Who would you chose as your successor?

 

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