by John Baldoni

How To Succeed At Succession Planning

Mar 05, 20085 mins
IT Leadership

What you need to know to build a pipeline of future leaders

When Mel Karmazin resigned his position as COO and president of Viacom in 2004, he ended what the Wall Street Journal labeled as “four years of constant tension and sniping.” Even though Karmazin was the expected successor to Sumner Redstone, the founder and CEO of Viacom, it was an open secret that he and Redstone did not see eye to eye. Karmazin’s leaving did not ameliorate the tension, however; it has created another succession nightmare. Even now, four years, later a successor to Redstone has yet to be anointed.

Succession Blues

Failure to name a clear successor seeps below the top floor. Bob Nardelli, former CEO of Home Depot and once a successor in running to Jack Welch at General Electric , told a reporter for the Wall Street Journal that the competition for the top spot was like “playing in the Super Bowl, the last two minutes, for two years…. You know you’re being looked at through a magnifying glass.”

Well, if it’s tough on the leader, it is also stressful for the folks underneath; they get drawn into rival camps. Instead of being able to focus on the work, subordinates are often asked, whether they like it or not, to choose sides between one heir apparent or another. Worse, those in the running for higher positions may ask their teams to withhold information or refuse work assignments from a rival’s teams. It makes for lousy work conditions and detracts from productivity to say the least.


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Competition among individuals and teams over ideas is positive and even healthy for the organization because it can stimulate people to think differently in the pursuit of good solutions. But when competition among rivals turns destructive, it causes friction with heat so severe it melts everything in its path, including people. Heaven help the direct reports of the heir apparent who did not get the top slot. Siberia may seem a warm and welcoming place to those who got caught on the wrong side of the succession plan.

It does not have to be this way. While managers can have little input into succession at the top, they can have much input into their own successors. Here are some things for managers consider:

Identify candidates. Succession begins with identifying not only the next in line, but the one with the most to offer the organization. Look for men and women who demonstrate initiative and autonomy; these folks want to do more because they can do more. Enthusiasm is good, too. But do not be blinded by too much willingness; some very capable folks may feel it is unseemly to promote himself. Therefore, you as a manager need to communicate your willingness to listen to new ideas as well as to look for people who want more responsibilities.

Develop those candidates. Every successful leader got to where he is now by bringing others along for the journey. Leadership, after all, is not a solo act. Some managers are fearful that if they help their subordinates, they will lose their jobs. Well, that does happen, of course, but most often they lose one position only to gain another one further up the ladder. The mark of a good leader is the willingness to develop others and help them with their own careers by providing challenging assignments, offering cross-functional assignments, recognizing contributions and delivering continuous coaching. Opening the door for others and, more importantly, teaching them about the business and how to navigate the hallways of power, demonstrates strength.

Look to grow your own skills. By developing others, you are developing yourself. Teaching not only requires effective communication; it demands mastery of a subject as well as a willingness to learn more in order to share more. Sometimes the learning is about acquiring new skills, but often the learning involves getting to know more about the talents and skills of your people. And that might be the most valuable leadership lesson of all.

Natural Progression

The key to successful succession planning is to stop viewing it as a zero-sum game with one winner and one loser. It should be regarded as a natural progression in the health of an organization. While the one who fails to get the top spot may leave (and often for greener pastures), her people may not wish to move, nor should they. They should be regarded as cherished members of the team; after all, it was their contributions that put their leader into the running in the first place. No organization can afford to lose that kind of talent.

Barry Diller, who, like Sumner Redstone, built a media empire, once quipped to a Harvard Business School audience, “In the entertainment business you don’t really have to be a good manager and some people would even argue that you shouldn’t be because it won’t do you any good.” Toward that end, he has learned to push decision making throughout the ranks rather than hold all the power for those at the top. Now working outside Hollywood, Diller has changed his tune; he cautioned the b-schoolers about management: “You’ve really got to set time and thoughtful care to it.” That’s good advice for anyone in any field and at any level, including those thinking about who’s next in line. After all, good ideas, like good people, can come from anywhere in the organization. It’s simply a matter of knowing where to look.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofits, including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker, and author of six books on leadership, the most recent being “How Great Leaders Get Great Results.” Visit his leadership resource website at