‘Tis That Time of Year: C-Suite Transitions

By: Deborah P. Rubin

This holiday season includes an unusual number of C-suite leadership transitions. Some have been triggered by company performance or executive behavior. Others are due to shifts in the business model, planned succession moves, or the unexpected departure of individual senior executives. Without question, these changes can help poise an organization for higher levels of performance. However, they can also create distractions, anxiety, and unintended consequences. Given that changes in leadership—both planned and unplanned—are a reality, how can boards, CEOs, and senior executives maximize the benefits while minimizing the costs?

During the selection period of a CEO succession process, it is easy for boards to underestimate the need to provide overt TLC to the key leaders they want to retain. After all, it should be obvious to a high-performing executive the extent to which he or she is valued by the board. But unless this person is on the list of potential successors, the need to state the obvious may move to the bottom of a chairman’s or lead director’s long to-do list. For situations involving an interim CEO or when the current CEO’s retirement is announced well in advance in order to launch an external search, addressing the inevitable anxiety created among the rest of the senior team can help minimize distractions and keep the business on track.

For planned succession moves within a company, a not-so obvious risk is embedded when a superstar is being moved out of a current role and the intent is to backfill with someone who is less of a heavy hitter. It is easy to take for granted what the incumbent brought to the role and assume this level of impact is a given moving forward, only to find that this is not the case. What may prove more helpful is for CEOs and their CHROs to proactively note the additional processes or structure that will reduce the role complexity, identify external support to help provide needed expertise or perspective, or narrow the responsibilities initially and then broaden over time as the new executive grows into the role.

Senior executives who are considering a transition should ensure they step back to take stock before selecting the next adventure. A high-level leadership role can consume most of an executive’s focus and energy. Before responding to the siren’s call of the next role, executives should ensure that they are clear regarding their goals, both career and personal. And, they should include their spouse or significant other in these musings. Priorities evolve for all of us; the more explicit these are, the easier it is to make good choices and come to terms with the inevitable trade-offs. Finally, the executive should note when he/she last moved to a new company. If this was not within the last five years, the executive should revisit what it takes to transplant well to a new ecosystem and potentially seek additional support.

The logical aspects of transitions have been well documented and are identifiable through solid planning. By paying attention to the nuances, seemingly little things, CEOs, board members, and senior executives can help maximize the perceived value of the “gift” to their organizations of a new leader.

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