Succession Planning: “Ready Now” Vs. “Ready Enough”


In a recent meeting of the Center for Executive Succession’s member CHROs, the topic of building C-suite and particularly CEO successors generated significant interest. The discussion suggested that our old assumptions about executive succession may have become anachronistic.

One assumption guiding much thinking in this space suggests the criticality of developing internal successors in the absence of extraordinary circumstances. Such thinking focuses significant attention and resources on developing "ready now" successors. Most often this requires building talent to deliver in the same way as the incumbent so that if the incumbent departs, the candidate can step into that role with as little transitional difficulty as possible. However, two issues emerge when pursuing such a talent strategy.

First, one can question the accuracy of even using the term "ready now." One CHRO wrote to me "I prefer to use ‘ready enough’ than ‘ready now’ as there’s no proof other than doing the actual job that someone is ready now." This of course highlights the trouble with defining when does an individual move from not ready enough to ready enough?

Second, building ready now successors requires a delicate balancing of timing. A number of CHROs note that "ready now" successors do not want to wait too long to be promoted. At some point the frustration may turn a "ready now" successor into a "ready gone" ex-employee. Probably half of the CHROs I have communicated with regarding this have emphasized the criticality of timing.

Third, given the volatility of the competitive environment, firms may find it extremely difficult to develop successors into a profile that matches the requirements necessary in a changed landscape. In other words, by the time one builds a "ready now" successor, that successor may more likely be an "irrelevant now" one.

It seems that some new terms need to enter the executive succession lexicon. Ready now may only be ready enough, and can often lead to either ready gone or irrelevant now.