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How to Leave Them Loving Your Successor

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Avoiding the loss of top performers in the horse race to the top was a priority for this CEO as he was exiting. Here's how he did it.

Never say never!

That is a mantra that every leader knows in their heart about their leave-taking. Not only may the leaving be hard on the individual, particularly a CEO, but it can also be very hard for the organization, particularly if that leader is respected. In addition, employees crave certainty, and when the top person leaves, that disruption can create a sense of uncertainty.

The role of who’s next can often become a horse race. And when there are a couple of candidates, there can be one winner and two “losers.” The company loses valuable talent that way.

Avoiding that scenario was essential to me as I considered how and when I would leave as CEO of the WD-40 Company, where I had served for more than two decades. Culture is the glue that binds all of us together at WD-40 Company, so I knew my successor had to do more than grow the business. They would have to nurture the culture, too. For example, managers at WD-40 Company are called coaches; their role is to develop others, including their successors.

Take the right steps

Preparing a successor may be considered your last gift to your company. I started the succession plan eight years ago. It is how you ensure that what you helped to build has a foundation upon which to grow stronger and wiser. Consider it an act of grace. You are enabling the leader and successor—as well as the successor and the organization—to feel comfortable and connected.

Foremost, you want to make sure they can do the job. My daughter Kate, who teaches dance, says the only way to prepare a dancer for Broadway is to have them dance Off-Broadway. Then, show what you can do on a small stage and prepare for the main stage.

In time one candidate, Steve Brass, stood out most evidently. He had proven himself a success on every stage, and so there was only one place for him to be—the United States. That would mean moving himself and his family from the U.K. Having moved to the States along with my family from Australia in the early 90s, I wanted to make sure Brass’s family would be comfortable living here. Fortunately, the move worked well for all parties.

Preparing the organization for the next leader is essential. The person at the top has ways of doing things that people become accustomed to. When a new person takes the helm, there will be differences. So that’s where preparation occurs. We made Steve our COO in 2019, and with that move, it was clear he would be my successor. It would be him making more and more of the big decisions.

And just as Steve was taking over, Covid struck, disrupting businesses worldwide. Uncertainty was the watchword. I was fortunate to be able to work with Steve so closely. I like to say that Steve was in my sidecar, which meant he experienced the dips and bumps right alongside me on our road to recovery. The pandemic was and, to a degree, remains a tragedy, but looking back, it enabled us to see Steve—as well as our entire leadership cohort—act positively in the toughest of times. You could say they were our “master mariners,” women and men who could and did sail the roughest waters in the harshest of weathers.

Action steps

Now looking back on our journey together, I want to share a few thoughts on what it takes to leave in the best way possible.

• Be generous. Share what you know with your successor. Give them a peek behind the curtain to see what’s expected of the person holding the top post.

• Be compassionate. Understand that you are stepping aside. Let others know what you see in your successor. Help others see them as you do.

• Be courageous. I like to say that what I did was “train my assassin.” That is, I permitted him to lead in his way. He is not me. He is Steve, he will have his own voice, and I know he will do what’s best for the tribe and the WD-40 Company.

And finally, know this. What you thought might never come has arrived. So now it’s time to get on with the next chapter of your life. In the words of singer-songwriter Tim McGraw: “We all take different paths in life, but no matter where we go, we take a little of each other everywhere.”


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