Who’s on First? Successor Myths & Misconceptions

During the mid-1930s, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello introduced their famous vaudeville comedy sketch “Who’s on First?” about a fictitious baseball team. As they try to communicate with each other about the various players, the conversation becomes more and more confusing. Toward the end of the skit, they appear to have just begun to understand each other. Imagine the frustration that could have been avoided if they’d just had a general sense of the players from the start.

If they had, of course, we’d have missed out on one of the greatest comedy routines ever. But we’re making a point here. When you decide to preserve your business for another generation, a critical stage is deciding “Who’s on First” from among your best players.

As we’ve emphasized many times, succession isn’t only about successors, but obviously succession can’t happen without them. And it can be a real puzzle. Sometimes there are too few choices and sometimes there are too many. Sometimes a lot of effort has gone into developing them and sometimes there’s some catching up to do.

But no matter where you are in the process, there’s benefit in re-examining three common successor misconceptions.

The Sole Successor

When senior owners begin succession planning, they often focus on CEO succession – the role they themselves have occupied – to the exclusion of planning for other key roles. But the succession picture involves a constant placing and re-placing of tiles in a mosaic with many pieces. From COO and CFO to the heads of marketing, technology, human resources, and administration, pieces of various shapes, sizes and colors all need to fit together. The choice of CEO is influenced by the team around her and vice versa.

In addition, if you’re contemplating succession, then it stands to reason that your company has some critical mass. You’re not looking for one person who can bootstrap the company into a going concern. You’re looking for a team of leaders – including a chief among those leaders – who can preserve what you’ve built and grow the asset for their own and future generations.

The Clone Successor

So we’ve established that we’re talking about successors, plural. But what about that CEO role? One of the biggest mistakes senior leaders make is thinking that what worked for them in the past will work for others in the future. It’s so easy to fall into this way of thinking when you’re replacing yourself! But try to step back and get some objectivity. There’s a business risk when we define the future by looking in the rearview mirror. Or in this case, by looking in the mirror. Your children came from you, but they aren’t you. And they won’t lead like you led. Nor will a non-family CEO. In fact, it’s often better that they not be compared to you.

One way to steer clear of this trap is to begin succession planning with strategic planning. Plan first for what you envision the business environment will look like in the future, and then match up the capabilities that the next CEO will need to be successful in that future landscape. Start generating experiences now that will help the entire leadership team develop those capabilities.

The Ready Successor

The idea that a successor must be completely “ready” before he or she can take the reins is one of the biggest myths – and dare we say excuses – about successor timing. The only way you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone is “ready” to lead is to view their performance after the fact – after they’ve already taken the reins and demonstrated good or poor performance.

Too often we see succession standoffs where the senior generation is waiting for successors to step up, and the rising generation is waiting for the senior generation to give them the ball. More effective is for both generations to be working on their respective parts at the same time, and to be in an ongoing conversation about it.

Readiness is a matter of degree, and how ready the next CEO needs to be depends partly on how prepared the rest of the management team is. That’s another reason why it’s helpful to define successors as a team and not an individual. It also happens to be one of the best ways to manage any risks of readiness.



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