Leadership Barometer 184 Succession Secrets

February 14, 2023

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.

Leadership Barometer 166 Successful Succession

October 12, 2022

Succession planning, if done well, will provide an endless stream of fresh and vital talent. It will help any organization have continuity of excellent performance despite the vicissitudes of outward factors. Neglected succession planning will lead to spotty performance over time and frustration on many levels. Let’s take a look at some key observations and concepts about succession planning.

Succession is most important at the top

The need for good succession planning increases at the higher levels in any organization. Shop floor people only need minimal training on functions to become effective. Groom CEOs well on all the policies and nuances of running the organization before taking over.

There should be a specific succession planning process for all key jobs in any organization. Specify who is ready to step in immediately and who is learning for future roles. The obvious reason is that we never know when someone will leave for one reason or another. The transition may take place over years or as abruptly as a few hours, depending on circumstances.

An example from my past 

I remember one transition where my organization doubled in size. The previous manager and I had exactly 5 minutes for him to cross-train me before he left. He showed me where the personnel files were, gave me the keys to the office, and that was it.

Actually, the transition worked out pretty well. He did not have time to color my thinking about individuals or processes. I started out by building my own knowledge base.

Succession is broader than we think 

The activities of succession planning are much broader than most people realize. It starts with general cross-training for bench strength. Also include identifying high potential people for future roles, mentoring, and even job rotation. In fact, at the higher levels of leadership, the majority of daily activities are part of the succession process.

Make succession a conscious and continuous effort

Good succession planning takes a lot of time and energy. The process should go on at a conscious level nearly every day. It is often a hidden process that the rank and file do not understand. They only see the result.

When Jack leaves, we realize that Ann is fully capable of replacing him. It often takes on a political feel, since not everyone can be involved in many of the discussions. It can cause a lot of anxiety in organizations, so the best approaches are as transparent as possible. The anxiety occurs because people recognize there are posturing discussions frequently. Most of the discussions are private, so people feel nervous about the unknown.

Sometimes succession has a low priority 

It is too bad that succession planning takes a back burner in many organizations. This is true for several reasons:

  • Overburdened leaders have little time to think about long-term development.
  • There is a fear of setting up an implied competition and tension between contenders.
  • People may interpret succession discussions as meaning the incumbent is trying to leave early. This could imply a lack of commitment.
  • External replacement versus internal promotions can demoralize understudies.
  • Succession is a highly emotional topic. People get nervous.

Advice from an expert

William Rothwell of Penn State is one of the recognized experts in Succession Planning.  He suggested there are at least 10 key steps that need to be included in any succession planning process:

  1. Clarify expectations for Succession
  2. Have competency models
  3. Conduct individual assessments
  4. Create a performance management system
  5. Assess individual potential
  6. Create development process
  7. Institute Individual development plans
  8. Keep a talent inventory
  9. Establish accountability for making the system work.
  10. Evaluate the results.

Rothwell also gave us a list of 6 of the biggest mistakes in succession planning:

  1. Assuming success at one level will guarantee success at a higher level.
  2. Thinking bosses are the best judge of who to promote.
  3. Considering promotions as entitlements.
  4. Trying to do too much too fast.
  5. Giving no thought to what to call it.
  6. Assuming that everyone wants a promotion.


The best approach is to have a formal succession process for all professional jobs in an organization. Let people know what it is. Make it a daily focus instead of something managers think about only when someone is leaving.  I believe succession is a fundamental leadership process. The highest calling for any leader is to grow other leaders.

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

Taking Over For an Awful Leader

August 17, 2013

Hasty ExitSuppose you were just called into the Vice President’s office and were told that you are being promoted to be the manager of a department of over 200 people. This is the break you have been working toward your whole career. You are delighted to accept the position. When you are informed which department you will be leading, your heart sinks. Oh no! This is the group that has been reporting to Ralph Clueless. He was just fired for stealing company property and then lying about it.

You have been aware that Ralph was a disaster as a leader. He would abuse people and call them names in front of their peers. He would say whatever lie seemed expedient at the time to get him out of a tight spot. He freely took credit for things that others did, and often blamed the workers for having “bad attitudes.” There was one striking female employee whom Ralph favored, and his unwanted advances were obvious and totally out of line. People hated working for Ralph, and until he was removed for cause, they just were putting in their time and not even caring about doing a decent job.

All of a sudden, you are going to be inheriting these jaded workers. You would love to be the manager of a department, but this assignment is going to be a killer. The group is ready to turn any manager into mincemeat. Is the situation hopeless for you? I believe the answer is “no.” Reason: My observation is that groups of people can be turned around from a lynch mob into a productive and positive group of workers under the right kind of leader. Is it going to be easy? Heck no! It will be the ultimate challenge to turn the group of angry and skeptical workers into a compliant, enthusiastic and productive workforce.

Here are eight actions you can take to move rapidly toward success?

1. Recognize the opportunity you have – Ralph was such an extreme loser as a manager, you will look good by almost every comparison, once people shed the “I hate all managers” gut reaction.

2. Acknowledge people have been abused – Since Ralph is gone, and you do not need to defend what he has done, you have the opportunity to start by saying “The Ralph Era is over, and we are turning a corner to a whole new culture based on higher trust.” Do not expect people to believe you the first time you say that, but as it is repeated and especially reinforced through your actions, people will turn quickly in your direction.

3. Get to know people individually – The first few minutes, hours, and days are the most critical for your tenure. Make sure to spend maximum time out on the shop floor shaking hands and asking people about their interests and family. When a new manager takes over a department, it is tempting to spend several days cloistered with the supervisors developing a strategy. Put off the conference room work until later. Put a higher priority on mingling with people in their work space. If they need to vent about the past, let them do so.

4. Avoid a lynch mob opportunity – My style would be to delay having a town meeting format where people can ask questions. Wait until some rapport has been developed. Reason: upon your arrival, people will be out for blood. They will take over the floor and shout out any attempt for you to be sincere and talk about a bright future. Let your actions do the talking, and meet people individually or in small informal groups.

5. Figuratively and literally feed the workers – Make good wholesome food available as a gesture of good will. When people are munching on good food, it goes a long way toward calming them down. For sure, this is something Ralph would never have done. Feed them as well with your vision of what the group can become by working together toward a common goal. Let your values be known, first by words, but more importantly by your deeds.

6. Begin to build a culture of reinforcement – Ask everyone to send you a text or e-mail when they see something done by another person that is helpful. Get back to both the person being praised and the person doing the praising saying that we are working on a new culture where people honestly care about each other. Let the love and feeling evolve naturally. It will do so quickly under the proper leadership.

7. Give rather than take credit – Simply acknowledge every good deed with a sincere “thank you” that is given face to face. Avoid a program where people are given trinkets (buttons, stickers, pencils, etc.) or points toward some gift (like a shirt or jacket). Instead, foster the spirit of sincere gratitude. It is OK to give some tangible reinforcement, but make it meaningful and special (rare) rather than trivial and overdone.

8. Build Trust – The most important ingredient to the new culture is trust. Create an environment where people feel it is safe to tell you when something you did or said does not feel right to them. Reward people openly when they challenge you. They are giving information that took courage to share, and you would not know the information unless they shared it.

I have witnessed and coached several leaders to do the above things in creating a whole new culture. What is so amazing is how quickly people are able to put “The Ralph Era” behind them and rally around the new leader. I have observed this kind of metamorphosis happen in a matter of a few months under a great leader. Just imagine the power of taking a Hell-hole culture and turning it into a brilliant example of empowered and engaged workers. It can be done quickly if you follow the eight steps above.