Leadership Barometer 184 Succession Secrets

This article is about succession secrets because succession is a very delicate and dangerous area of leadership. I have worked as a consultant for hundreds of organizations over the past quarter century. Companies and executives call me in when there are issues that they cannot resolve themselves.

Roughly half of these situations have a delicate succession situation as the root cause of the problem. Each case is unique, because of the infinite variety of potential challenges that are specific to their situation. There are some common denominators that I will discuss in this article.

The leader does not want to go 

This is a typical situation where the incumbent leader has not been performing well but wants to stay and correct the problems.

What if the heir apparent is not competent? 

In the early 1980’s Wang Laboratories was one of the largest computer manufacturers in the world. Founder, An Wang, was the fifth richest American in 1986 and he passed on control to his son Fred Wang.

The company went downhill quickly. After three years, Wang decided to fire his son, but it was too late to save the company. The damage had been done. I have a brother who was able to witness this catastrophe from the inside.

A common succession secret 

The most common situation is where a leader is set to retire and the replacement leader is selected by a third party. The anointed person does not have the support of the people he will be leading (I will use the male pronoun in this article to keep it simple. Recognize the problem is equally valid for both genders.)

Sometimes the heir is easy to spot, like in a family-owned business.  Other times there is an outside influential person who lobbies for the new leader. The bottom line is that if most people are against the new leader, you are heading for trouble.

The current leader does not want to go unless he is convinced the organization can survive

I have run into this situation many times.  The leader has been in place for over 20 years and the organization has performed well.  The incumbent leader is in his 70s and is ready to retire. The problem is that he does not want to leave and have his “baby” suffer because of it.

In this case, I have found the best approach is to reason with the incumbent leader that he will be happier once he makes the decision and moves on. There will be less worry. It is amazing to see the relief on the part of the older leader once a replacement is in place.  

The succession secret is to plan and groom

Leaders should look down the road for several years and groom a successor over a period of time. They have a better outcome for several reasons.  The people in the organization become familiar and comfortable with the replacement.  The outgoing leader has plenty of time to influence the replacement. The time urgency is not there, so the whole process seems less frantic or arbitrary.


Successful succession requires a lot of attention and careful planning. Putting a decision off until you have to select a replacement urgently is a formula for failure.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.  He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind.  Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: