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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Can You Support Your Successor?

Frances Hesselbein, author of Hesselbein on Leadership, introduces a lesson on one of the many pitfalls that leaders must avoid as they prepare to hand over the reins from Succession, by Marshall Goldsmith.

When it comes to choosing and preparing your successor, one of the best things you can do, as executive advisor Marshall Goldsmith says, is to “look in the mirror.” In this excerpt from Succession: Are You Ready? a CEO hires Goldsmith to coach the company’s CFO, teaching him to build the interpersonal skills and self-awareness he will need to take on the CEO’s job. But the CEO refuses to acknowledge a hard truth: He does not want the CFO to get the top job.

If a CEO can look in the mirror and see authentic commitment to a course of action in his or her reflection, the enterprise is in good hands. But if that hard look instead reveals the message “You are going through the motions,” then the CEO must stop whatever he or she is doing in order to avoid a costly charade.

As you’ll see, Goldsmith is sorry he accepted this assignment. The CFO clearly benefited from a year with the world’s best executive coach, but the company lost out in the end. As for the CEO, if he had learned to honestly and accurately plumb his own intentions before acting, he could have reached a more profound level of self-knowledge and achieved greater success for his company. The same may be true for readers who take the time to think through passages like this.

— Frances Hesselbein

Excerpted from chapter 4 of Succession: Are You Ready?


A major CEO asked me to coach his CFO — and potential successor. After a few minutes I had the distinct feeling that the CEO just didn’t like the CFO — and didn’t really want him to get the job.

“I don’t think that you like this guy,” I said to the CEO.

“He may not be my favorite person, but I guess that I like him OK.” The CEO’s reply didn’t come with a great deal of conviction.

“Look, it’s just you and me talking here. There is no reason to play games with me,” I challenged. “I don’t think you like the CFO. If you really don’t want him to get this job, why are we even having this conversation? I don’t even know this guy. I don’t care if he becomes the CEO or not. Why would you want me to coach him — or to work on developing him as your successor — if you really don’t want him to have the job?”

“You are right!” he grunted. “I don’t like this guy. I think that he is kind of a jerk. I have never liked him very much — even though I’ve tried.”

“Then why are we having this conversation?” I asked.

He replied, “I don’t like him much, but I have to admit, he has made a tremendous contribution in helping our company. We have done a fantastic turnaround — and without him it would have been impossible. If your coaching process can really help him improve his interpersonal skills, he deserves to be the CEO of the company.”

“Are you sure?” I enquired skeptically.

“I think so — no, I am positive,” he replied.

When I heard, “I think so,” my gut said, “Leave now!” Unfortunately, I didn’t.

“If he makes great improvement in the interpersonal areas that we discussed, are you going to recommend him to be your successor?” I asked. “Are there any other reasons he may not get the job, such as a lack of technical or functional skills?”

“No, along with being great in finance, he is strong enough in all of the other functions to do a fine job as the chief executive,” the CEO concluded. “His only issues revolve around interpersonal behavior.”

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This Reviewer

  1. Frances Hesselbein is the chairman and founding president of the Leader to Leader Institute and former CEO of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. She is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest civilian award. Hesselbein is the coeditor of 26 books, the author of Hesselbein on Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2002), and editor-in-chief of the journal Leader to Leader.

This Excerpt

  1. Succession: Are You Ready? by Marshall Goldsmith (Harvard Business Press, 2009)
  2. Marshall Goldsmith is a leading executive advisor who has worked with more than 100 major CEOs and their management teams. He is cofounder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners LLC, a network of executive coaches, and a fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources. Goldsmith has written and edited 24 books, including What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (Hyperion, 2007), a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Harold Longman Award for best business book of the year.
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