Succession is hazardous, no matter how well an organization is prepared, and often ends up in a bloodbath. Prediction is not easy but there are opportunities to prevent significant damage to the organization and its public image. In my experience and understanding, the key to success or failure lies in three things getting done well:
- Candidate selection. In my experience, there are three critical factors which determine the probability of success of the best-qualified candidates. The first is the ability to deal with complexity. It is necessary to not just be able to grasp complexity intellectually, but to have lived through and managed multidimensional situations. Successors who complain of having found the reality to be very different from what they understood before taking charge may actually be suffering on this account. The second is the ability to manage key stakeholders. In the initial period, there is a significant tension between the successor’s need to gain independence and get on with his task and the key stakeholder’s anxiety to see that the boat doesn’t get rocked in the process. While both sides have the responsibility to ensure success, the successor’s skill in mitigating anxieties and building consensus and support where necessary can be the determining factor. The third is learning agility. The temptation to repeat what one has been successful with earlier or do it ‘their way’ is very strong. This can heighten the initial anxiety of the key stakeholders as well as alienate the team members. The consequent delay in the successor’s coming to terms with the new organization and its business/es can be detrimental to success. These competencies are usually the hardest to assess since the projection of past successes into future role is fraught with difficulties.
- The successorís approach to taking charge. In the initial period, there is a delicate balance between learning the business, getting to know the organization, people etc. and demonstrating one’s capability and impact. Overdoing one or the other may cause negative perceptions. Another equally critical aspect is the selection of people the successor chooses to assist in discharging her/his role. The blend of ‘old’ and ‘new’, ‘thinkers’ and ’doers’ etc. sends signals to the stakeholders. Also, while there is great temptation to bring in people who the person is familiar with or are like her/him, if the team does not complement her/his competencies and is willing to challenge and debate, the chances of failure are high.
- The key stakeholderís approach to onboarding and assimilating the new comer. Here, the key is conveying a sense of trust and confidence in the new incumbent, staying close to the situation without ‘micromanaging’ or stifling the person and creating an environment and structure of communication, review, advice and coaching. Care needs to be taken to ensure that these interactions are supportive rather than judgmental. A communication structure in which the periodicity, content and tenor are appropriate can lead to an assessment very early on whether the new comer is the right candidate to succeed and if there are irreconcilable differences in the management style. A common mistake stakeholders make is to not convey and resolve discomforts early enough leading to a situation where the ultimate confrontation seems sudden and motivated.
Succession to succeed needs the two, the successor and the key stakeholder, to tango. Any slippage on either side can lead to derailment. On the other hand, a great partnership can create success even if there are gaps.
(The article presents the author’s personal views on the generality of succession)