An Open Letter on CEO Succession

By: Thomas J. Saporito

Dear Founding CEO,

Congratulations on what you have accomplished. Your vision, imagination, and plain hard work have turned the spark of an idea into an organization that employs thousands and provides valuable products and services to consumers around the world. Your personality and drive have become synonymous with the culture and brand of the company. While this is rightfully a tribute to your talents, I have to wonder…does your vision extend to what the organization will look like without you?

Concerned as you are with day-to-day operations and today’s ever-changing operating environment, CEO succession is probably low on your worry list (if it ranks at all). I strongly suggest you reconsider. From a strictly business point of view, CEO continuity is fundamental to a company’s sustained success. Passivity is simply not an option if you want your company to survive.

I understand this company is your baby. You made it what it is today, and no one knows the business like you do. I get that. But the fact is, by accident, design, or biological necessity, one day the company you grew so carefully will have to go on without you. You worked hard to build up your legacy. Don’t abandon it now. Protect its tomorrow by planning for new leadership today.

But before you start to work on the actual design of the succession program, we need to have a hard conversation.

  • You will not be taking a leadership role in the election of your successor. Stakeholders today expect a company’s board of directors to have command of the entire process.
  • You will be their main partner and have a vital part to play. But the program is not yours to control.

Whether you leave immediately or remain on the board, it’s better to literally (and symbolically) let go at the changeover—providing the new chief executive with the freedom and autonomy to lead as the single source of authority.

And that will be hard.

  • You may instinctively try to remain involved in key business decisions and influence the board behind the scenes with your opinions. Actions like these can impede the incoming CEO’s growth and development in the role and inhibit members of the board from building a trusting relationship with him/her.
  • This is also when you will have to give your senior team the freedom to switch alliance from you to the new leader and his/her agenda. You will even have to stand by silently as the team is reshaped to match the company’s current business needs as interpreted by the board and the new CEO.
  • You still will have one last essential contribution to make for the benefit of your company during the changeover. Your wisdom and experience need to be leveraged and shared with the new CEO. Giving your knowledge with openness, grace, and style will go a long way toward making the transition seamless and successful.

We’ve talked about the company and the new CEO. Now I’d like to talk about you—as a person, not as a founding chief executive. Remember to take time to manage yourself and your own emotional needs. Don’t underestimate how the changeover will affect you. Take a serious look in the mirror before the process begins so you will be ready psychologically when the time comes. The transfer of power is usually very personal for a founder. Fear; loss of power; emotions; uncertainty; and the blood, sweat, and tears you have invested in the company are going to make letting go difficult.

Don’t try to do it alone. While some may be able to stare into the reflection and draw meaningful conclusions by themselves, most individuals benefit from the feedback and insights provided to them by significant others, colleagues, mentors, or objective outside consultants.

Along with the succession plan, build a parallel process for your personal transition. Make sure both you and your company remain vital and healthy throughout the transition process and enter a new phase of life with a solid foundation for success.

Sincerely,

Dr. Thomas J. Saporito

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