Boards are under more pressure now than ever before to ensure a sustained pipeline of executive leadership is available to the companies they govern. Recent headlines for companies like H-P, Sara Lee and Apple show that many company boards are under scrutiny for their lack of a suitable plan for CEO succession. Yet 43 percent of publicly traded companies have no formal succession plan in place. Even more alarming, 61 percent of companies have no internal candidate development process (National Association of Corporate Directors, 2009 Survey).
Succession planning should be a key priority for boards in order to drive sustained growth. Boards should consider steps they can take to develop a deep bench of future CEO candidates – internally and externally – both for the near term and 3-5 generations into the future. Here’s how boards can ensure they are identifying, developing and retaining those leaders now.
1. Plan in Advance
CEO succession should not be thought of as a short-term process or an event triggered by the need to replace the incumbent CEO. Board/CEO discussions should be on-going and should address the company’s needs for the short, mid and long term. Ideally, the board should be thinking 2-3 CEO moves ahead.
2. Engage the Board
The board should fully own the CEO succession planning process and meet consistently throughout the year to discuss succession bench strength for short-, mid- and long-term needs. Look at leaders both inside and outside the company; understand who the rising stars are in your industry sector. Be involved in talent development and identify the leaders who will define the future. Ideally, boards should set up succession subcommittees to drive this process.
3. Set Up a Formal Assessment Process
Establishing a formal assessment process helps ensure standards for sustained leadership are met. Facilitated by the CEO, it also provides the board with another opportunity to evaluate priorities and needs. A formal assessment process ensures that board members have quality information with which to evaluate future leaders.
4. Create a “Future CEO” Profile
The board should create CEO profiles that align with the company’s business strategy, representing the short-, mid- and long-term competencies that mirror the anticipated strategic needs of the company. Having future CEO profiles helps to ensure that the right bench strength is in place for future generations of CEOs.
5. Expand the Pipeline
The wider and deeper the pipeline of candidates is, the better. While companies should first look to develop talent internally, they should also have knowledge of top talent in the external market. An expanded pipeline of quality internal and external candidates provides more options to the board at any given time. Multiple options lower the board’s risk factor.
6. Expose the Board to the Bench
There are at least seven future CEOs in every organization. Board members should interact with the company’s highest potential leaders in a variety of settings. In addition to board presentations, high-potential leaders should interact with the board through regularly scheduled board dinners, board mentoring opportunities or rotating one-on-one/small group sessions with board members. Greater first hand exposure to the company’s top talent gives board members valuable insight into the company’s true executive pipeline.
7. Address Succession Dynamics Head On
Succession is a sensitive topic for boards and CEOs. This should not deter the process. There are straightforward ways of aligning the board and CEO on the process, avoiding “horse races” internally, engaging the incumbent CEO and productively managing expectations of all involved.
8. Talk Succession Regularly
The board should plan for a formalized annual discussion with the CEO on succession planning along with at least one mid-year update. These sessions should keep the topic on the board’s radar as a continuing priority.
9. Manage the Transition
The handoff between incumbent and successor should be planned well in advance. Communication should be planned carefully, and all parties involved should know their role in the process.
10. Plan for Sudden Loss of Leadership
In parallel with the long-term approach described here, companies need to have an emergency CEO succession plan in place at all times. This plan should be reviewed at least once annually, and should include multiple options for leadership.
Jane Stevenson is vice chairman of Board & CEO Services at Korn/Ferry International’s Atlanta office. Peter Thies is senior partner and industry leader in the Financial Services Leadership and Talent Consulting division at Korn/Ferry International, operating out of their New York City office.