Not often someone comes along who seems to be bigger than life itself – someone whose vision challenges everything we know and how we look at things. I cannot think of anything more exhilarating than being part of an organization that has been built around such a person. But here is the challenge. Such truly exceptional people are once in a lifetime in most organizations. When they depart, what does the organization do? For Apple, their approach was to have Tim Cook, who as their COO worked closely with Jobs, ready for this role. Was succession planning underway when Cook was recruited in 1998? I would expect a hire at this level had to have some such considerations. Then, in the ensuing years, Cox succeeded in the many challenging assignments he was given. You could say he earned the role.
What can you learn from this? Effective organizations today understand workforce and succession planning, and have programs in-place to do this. These programs are usually built around processes and systems. These are an important part of corporate sustainability. Does your organization have such a program in place that will enable you to continue seamlessly when you lose one of you key leaders? The person who eventually becomes the successor for such a leader may not have all of the same unique characteristics, but they should have the ability to continue with the culture that has been established, while they leave their own footprint. Making certain an exceptional organization remains so is a challenge.
Here are suggestions:
- Recognize you will never duplicate any person, whether they are an Icon, or just a highly successful leader. Don’t try.
- Incorporate the Board’s vision in defining the parameters for the successor.
- Determine the most important characteristics for the successor to have. Identify what are required and what are “ideal.”
- If your organization truly is exceptional, don’t recruit someone from the outside to this type of role. Rather, as you build your management team, recruit candidates who have the potential to grow, and give them challenging assignments, ensuring their development.
- Work with a retained search firm and demand they recommend only candidates who are truly outstanding. If you are a World Class organization you need to hire World Class talent.
- Make your search firm a partner in your succession process, well in advanced of the time the transition takes place.
- Rely on a formal onboarding program to efficiently build cohesiveness in the new senior leadership team – with every senior leadership hire.
- Listen… to employees, to customers, to the investment community, to all stakeholders, and respond positively and quickly when changes are appropriate.
Replacing an Icon is truly a once in a lifetime experience. If you are fortunate enough to have such an individual within your organization, plan well in advance for their eventual departure.