Executive Succession Planning: If you want to build a skyscraper, don’t start by buying a hammer.

“We need a way to identify people who could be promoted to top executive positions. What tools do you use to assess leadership?” the head of HR for a small regional bank asked me.
“Are you planning to rely on a “tool” to make that determination?” I asked.
“We haven’t thought much about the process itself,” she replied, “The executive team isn’t ready for a succession program strategy. They aren’t looking for anything extensive.”  
I wondered to myself, when would they be ready?

  • When a senior executive team member unexpectedly decides to leave? 
  • When the President develops cancer? 
  • When the CEO is fired suddenly for misconduct? 

Given the voluminous number of articles in the business press on the importance of having a robust succession plan, I was surprised by the rudimentary approach. They just wanted a tool – but you can’t build a skyscraper when all you’re ready to do is to buy a hammer. 

Don’t leave succession to chance: tools don’t work when you don’t have a blueprint. 

Some of the most venerated companies have stumbled because their leadership development and succession plans were not deep enough to weather the storms of change. For example, because Intel didn’t have a clear blueprint, when Andy Grove stepped back from leading, the company churned through a series of executives who lacked the curiosity and the courage to lead – the C² Factor, as I call it. 
And Intel isn’t alone… neither Apple nor Starbucks had effectively built a foundation of future leaders with high CFactors, like Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz possess, and their companies faltered when they retired from active leadership. Jobs and Schultz ultimately had to return and reestablish what had made the brands so successful, but neither simply replicated what the companies had been doing before.  They brought their curiosity about the future and the courage to take action.
For successful leadership development, the “architects of the corporate strategy” must conceptualize a CFactor blueprint for the skyscraper. When organizations begin by looking to HR to find assessment tools, thousands of dollars are spent producing reports and plans that don’t reflect the business’s most important needs. 

Start with curiosity as a foundation in assessing leadership.

Truly outstanding companies have succession planning and leadership development blueprints that are comprehensive and integrated into the corporate strategy. The CEO and boards of these companies are directly involved in determining what capacities, roles, and talent will be needed. They cultivate a C² Factor culture – empowering future leaders who possess both curiosity and courage. Curiosity is foundational to succession planning. A culture of curiosity ensures leaders who are able to effectively navigate decisions and challenges today, and equips them to anticipate the future and respond to its surprises. Absent clear objectives and agreement among the board on the succession blueprint, any single tool is arbitrary.

Follow up with courage: bravely, and intentionally, build your leadership skyscraper.

Curiosity and clarity of vision for your organization is the place to start, but organizations positioned for the future have senior leaders who also possess the courage to follow through, the courage to constantly reassess, and the courage to insist that leadership development be a corporate priority. 

In order to be successful in creating a strong succession strategy, the CEO and board need to govern their executive development programs by:

  • Investing in succession planning as the critical business lever it is.
  • Recognizing that comprehensive and continuous succession planning is a powerful aspect of the company’s brand.
  • Actively cultivating C² Factor culture, encouraging the curiosity to think toward the future and the courage to enact the plan.

To build a leadership development skyscraper, CEOs and boards in highly successful businesses create the blueprint that reflects their vision – They don’t shop for tools.

Contact me at joanne.irving@i2aa.com or call me at 301-943-3074 to find out how you can cultivate your curiosity and courage – your C²Factor. 

Joanne Irving, Ph.D., Executive Advisor, Author of the forthcoming book, The  C² Factor – The Secret to Champion Leadership

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