Difficult Conversations with the CEO about Succession


In the last blog I noted a number of ways in which CHROs support CEOs with regard to CEO succession. As part of the support for the CEO we also asked about the most difficult conversations they have had with the CEO about succession. Importantly, the most frequent response was that there were no difficult conversations. For instance, one CHRO wrote "None. He recognizes how critical succession planning is to the ongoing health of the enterprise. He also sits on a couple of external boards where succession planning was not taken seriously and has seen the subsequent fallout from the lack of planning and smooth transitions." Another wrote, "Actually, I haven't had difficult conversations. He's been very open to modifying his role to be one of a mentor and developer of talent so he can prepare the next generation to succeed him." Thus, while difficult conversations occur, it is important to note that many CEOs have a healthy appreciation for the process.

In terms of difficult conversations, however, the most frequently mentioned was around he fact that his/her first choice might not be the best choice. A number of CHROs discussed how the CEO's favorite might not have the capabilities to serve as CEO, or that though they might have the capabilities, there were more qualified candidates. This was by far the most frequently mentioned difficult conversation.

The second area of difficulty stems from the emotional nature of the departure. First, the CEO job, while highly stressful, also has a number of perks such as wealth, respect, fame, etc. While the wealth remains, respect and fame will soon begin to dissipate. As one CHRO wrote "...I have been through this a number of times and I don't think it's easy to hear how confused/concerned they are about who they will be without the CEO title." Second, CEOs obviously feel they are doing a great job, and thus it may be difficult for them to believe that anyone else could do a better job. One CHRO wrote ‘His bar is extremely high - he has never met anyone that meets his expectations" and another "If the CEO does not believe he's capable of being replaced, it's a moot point."

A third area of difficult conversations has to do with the timing of the CEO's departure. This does not necessarily mean that others want the CEO to leave before s/he wants to, but may only be around getting a specific timetable so that the process can be followed. As one CHRO explained with regard to a previous CEO "...it was about when was the right time. It led to a dinner with key board members with he and I attending to discuss it, and that triggered a chain of events for an orderly succession."