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Top executive educator Marshall Goldsmith offers practical advice on succession from the outgoing executive's point of view in his new book, Succession: Are You Ready? (Harvard Business Press, February 2009)
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Coaching Great Leaders
What to Avoid When Choosing a Successor

By Marshall Goldsmith

When evaluating our potential successors, we should first look at ourselves. Following are three classic mistakes leaders make when reviewing potential successors. All three can cloud our objectivity and diminish our ability to evaluate successors.

1. Why doesn't she act like me? As a rule successful human beings tend to "over-weight" our own strengths and "under-weight" our own weaknesses when evaluating others. The more successful we become, the more we can fall into the "superstition trap", which, simple stated, is, "I behave this way. I am a successful leader. Therefore, I must be a successful leader because I behave this way."

All successful leaders are successful because of many positive qualities and in spite of some behavior that needs improvement.

As a leader, take a hard look at your own strengths and challenges. Realize that you will have a natural tendency to forgive even large errors that resemble your weaknesses and to punish even small flaws that occur in your area of strength.

After making a list of your strengths and challenges, list the strengths and challenges of your potential successor. As hard as it may be, try to think like an objective outsider. Challenge yourself to recognize that the behavior that you feel is most important for the company may really be the behavior that is most important for you.

2. Why doesn't he think like me? It is hard for successful leaders not to believe that their strategic thinking is the right strategic thinking. As you proceed in the succession process, you are going to have to let go. It can be very hard to watch your successor make decisions that are different than yours. It is especially tough since, as long as you are still the leader, you have the power to reverse the decisions.

Your successor is going to manage your organization in the future—not you. As hard as it may be, you have to let him or her begin to make a bigger and bigger difference in developing strategy.

As long as the organization will be headed in a positive general direction—and achieving results—try to recognize that your successor's different path may actually turn out to be a better path.

3. Why doesn't she respect and appreciate my friends? We all tend to over-value input from people that we personally like and respect and under-value that from people who we don't love as much. Face the fact that your successor may have different personal preferences than you. Your trusted advisors may not be hers.

Invariably when transition occurs, some of your friends may lose status or power and may end up leaving the company. This can be tough—both for them and for you.

Respect your successor enough to let her choose her own key advisers.

Marshall Goldsmith, MBA, PhD, is a world authority on helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting behavioral change. His executive coaching expertise has been highlighted in Forbes, Fast Company and Business Week. He is the WSJ and NYT best-selling author of What Got You Here Won't Get You There (Hyperion, 2007). His most recent book is Succession: Are You Ready? Learn more about Marshall in the WABC Coach Directory. Contact Marshall.

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