I am a trained psychologist who applies my skills and experience in the behavioral sciences to help solve business problems. For the past five years, I have been the CEO of YSC Consulting, a 230-employee global business that helps organizations develop the leadership needed to achieve their future business strategies. It’s a role I have thoroughly enjoyed. We doubled the value of the business over these years, and the opportunity to lead it was a true privilege. However, as YSC grew, I noticed I was spending more time on the business and less time on the client work I personally find so rewarding.
I have always counseled clients to see CEO succession planning as an ongoing exercise, and to avoid a leadership vacuum by having a robust senior talent pipeline at the ready. This is a proven best practice I wanted to apply at YSC. So, when I was offered the CEO role, I was excited to accept. I did so knowing that I would go back to full-time client work after a few years. During my tenure as CEO, I set a goal of elevating the talent at our leadership level, thereby enabling a smooth transition once I was ready to step aside.
How easy was it to practice what I preach to clients? Were there any surprises? What did I learn that will make me a better counselor to CEOs in the future?
The first step should be to define your role during the succession process. I made my intentions known to the Chair of our board about six months before I wanted to transition out of the CEO role, allowing them plenty of time to plan and find the right successor. I was then faced with the dilemma of how involved to be in the process of identifying my successor. On the one hand, I knew it was the formal responsibility of the Chair to manage the process. On the other, I decided it was my duty to the Board to articulate what would be required of future leadership based on the direction of the business. I needed also to express my views on the various participants according to facts and data, not emotion.
Make sure your leadership team has meaningful interactions with those who will make the decision about succession. Knowing that I would eventually want to transition from CEO, I had worked from the very beginning to create a diverse leadership team. During my tenure as CEO, I ensured those leaders had regular and substantive interface with our board members because I knew this would be the primary pool of candidates for my successor. I wanted the Board to see first-hand how they ran their piece of the business and to form an independent opinion about them. I wanted also to expose my colleagues to the board and the macro needs of the business to develop their perspectives. Overall, I felt that this helped the board members become familiar with the perspectives and personalities of an internal pool of candidates, thereby minimizing the need to look externally for a successor.
Seek advice from an objective third party to maintain focus. I sought the advice of a trusted counselor that was outside of the process because I was initially confused about what role I should play. This objective input throughout the process helped me sort through the range of emotions that inevitably comes with major life changes. Even the most rational character will feel a sense of loss of status during a CEO transition, and I—someone who had seen this play out with dozens of high-profile clients over the years—underestimated this in my own situation. Having the counsel of an objective party helped me focus on my goals and doing right by the firm, rather than allowing my emotions to cloud my judgment.
There were several surprises along the way, including the reaction of external parties. Many assumed I had been pushed aside, and in a world of ambition and ego, it was difficult for many of my peers to believe that executing against my career plan included having an exit strategy beyond the CEO role.
Ultimately, the biggest surprise was underestimating the emotional impact and intensity surrounding the change for those involved. As a consultant working with CEOs during their leadership transitions, I did not get emotionally invested in how those around the CEO were affected; whereas in my situation, I knew them all rather well and felt their sense of uncertainty and angst quite deeply.
This experience has left me with a greater sense of empathy for CEOs facing their succession. I now encourage the CEOs I counsel to take the time to think about the next phase of their career, and to do so despite the pressures and scrutiny of their current role. The CEO job is a lonely place. It is typically occupied by those with big egos, so the sense of loss of status when they hand the baton to a successor is even greater. Planning for succession from the start is not only practical and in the best interest of the organization, it can be reassuring (dare I say healthy) for CEOs as they approach the end of their tenure. It affords them a sense of control over the change, even as they relinquish the role.