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Succession planning. There are two points of view on the merits of this concept: good and horrible.

Supporters, who tout succession planning, often include a cadre of the usual suspects — executive search consultants and leadership gurus who will profit from this initiative.  Certainly there are governing boards and CEOs, primarily at the larger health systems and hospitals, who spend considerable time discussing this topic.  The detractors believe that more harm than good will come from planning for CEO succession.  Armed with anecdotal evidence of the concept’s failures, as well as concerns by some that a succession plan might lead to the CEO’s premature departure in times of conflict, they argue that the risks are not worth any possible upside.

Board members often lack the knowledge of planning for CEO succession, or they are easily deterred by a CEO who is opposed to it.  The devotees contend succession planning is an essential governing board responsibility, supporting their most important duty: selecting a CEO.  They contend that succession planning will ensure that all the positives of an organization are preserved, and course corrections can be achieved in a more orderly fashion.

Successful succession planning requires a high level of trust between the CEO and the Board.  If that trust does not exist, then it is time for some candidate conversation concerning the role of governance and the future of the organization.  Here are some ideas to consider.

  1. Succession planning is important.  I have first-hand experience in dealing with the sudden departure of beloved and successful CEOs.  For the organizations, the transformation is traumatic.  For years, I was ambivalent but with this first-hand experience, I have become a cautious convert, understanding that succession planning is NOT for everyone.
  2. Succession planning does not necessarily mean the Board will immediately recruit/designate an heir apparent.  Designating someone too far in advance, more often than not, is a bad idea.
  3. Succession planning does mean that the Board should focus with the CEO on the types of qualities that a successor should possess to successfully address the challenges of the organization.  It may mean developing a profile for the ideal successor and selecting a search consultant who becomes an element of the plan.  What are the skill sets and leadership characteristics that will enable the next CEO to build on past successes and to take the organization to the next level?
  4. Outside consultants can help facilitate the process but, and this is a BIG but, they must possess the confidence of the CEO and the Board.  If an outside advisor is selected, be certain this individual has the unique skills and insights to understand the organization (the cultural DNA, how decisions are made, and the values which drive all aspects of governance and operations).  Hint:  this is NOT an inherent skill among executive recruiters.

Where the CEO is in his or her career, or health issues, will drive the type of succession plan that is developed.  Finally, if there is no consensus on whether to proceed, then stop.  Succession planning is not for every organization but before it is rejected out of hand, have an honest conversation concerning its merits and drawbacks.