Second Thoughts on a CEO?s Successor
BY Ralph Ward
Question:"So far, the CEO succession process at my company has gone well. The current chief executive gave our board a good plan with an inside candidate whom he's been developing for several years. The heir apparent is the CEO's protégé and has built up an excellent record. But I have some nagging doubts about his maturity and leadership skills. How can I (or should I) address this with the other board members, who all seem pretty well sold on the candidate?"
Answer: Board members today are wise to take a show-me attitude when it comes to CEO candidates. As the recent case of Coca-Cola CEO Douglas Ivester showed, a candidate may come in with a great rep and the support of the incumbent CEO, yet not quite measure up after filling the Big Chair.
But as John Byrne observed in the December 27 Business Week, if a new CEO isn't up to scratch, it's the board that hasn't been doing its job. "The issue isn't the individual, but the process," says Deborah Cornwall, president of the Corlund Group consultants. This means that if you're having second thoughts, start with the board committee responsible. "Take the chairman of the committee aside to discuss your concerns, and have it viewed objectively." Raising concerns about the process at this stage may seem like locking the barn door after the horse is stolen, but the stakes of a leadership failure are so high that you must be willing to act.
Obviously, though, you're in a tricky political situation, so raising your concern must be done discreetly, or your "doubts" about the candidate could prove self-fulfilling. "One option is professional coaching" suggests DeeDee Meyers, head of the DDJ Meyers firm in Arizona. She recently consulted with a company "that selected an internal CEO candidate, though I thought she may not have the maturity needed. I told them I'd go along with the idea if we hired a professional coach." The new CEO seems to be progressing under this tutelage.
The CEO coaching route could be the answer for your problem. It can be approved by the board as a minor detail in the ongoing transition without casting doubt on the new CEO. But a coach brings a trained eye to the candidate's real potential, can help him or her shape up in a hurry, and will prove a valuable asset in the transition process.