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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Can You Support Your Successor?

I worked with the CFO for more than a year. At the end of my assignment, he was seen as making great improvements in all his targeted areas for interpersonal change — by fifteen out of sixteen raters. Only one person saw “no change.” Guess who that was? The CEO.

After the CFO confronted the CEO with his obvious improvement in interpersonal relationships, the CEO still did not recommend him for the job. While the CEO reluctantly admitted that the CFO had made great improvement in interpersonal behavior — which was clearly documented and hard to dispute — he now concluded that the CFO lacked “adequate marketing skills.” This was the same CEO who had told me the CFO’s marketing skills were just fine one year earlier.

Needless to say, the CFO was incensed. He pointed out that he had been assured that he would get the “big job” if he improved his interpersonal skills. He mentioned that he had turned down other, lucrative offers since he had assumed he would get the CEO position. He went to the board, pointed out what happened, and basically said, “Either make me the new CEO — or write me an extremely large check.”

He was paid off by the board — which cost the company millions of dollars. Since he had clearly improved, I was paid for my work as his coach. I still wished that I hadn’t taken the assignment. In hindsight, I feel that I was used as a pawn in a political game. The CEO believed that the CFO would not improve, and then he could say, “Well, we tried to help him. We got him the best coach we could find. He still didn’t improve; therefore, he is not ready for the job.”

When the CFO did improve, the CEO had to play the embarrassing “lacks marketing skills” card. My work — and the CFO’s great effort — ended up costing the company lots of money. At least the CFO was grateful to me — and felt he could use what he had learned in our work together in future roles.

Since that event, I have had other experiences that have reinforced my belief that if you, as the CEO, really don’t want a potential successor to get the job, you aren’t going to be helpful in coaching.

What is the learning point from this story for you, as a CEO? Look in the mirror. If you really don’t want your potential successor to get the job, don’t kid yourself. There is a very strong probability that this person will never get the job. You will just look for problems until you find a reason to disqualify him.

Don’t jerk around potential successors. This is not fair to them or to the company. If, in your heart, you don’t want the person to be your successor, don’t pretend to be interested in developing him for the job. Just work with someone you can support. If you cannot find a successor who you can sincerely support, go to the outside immediately and start recruiting some new talent!

— Marshall Goldsmith

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpt from Succession: Are You Ready? by Marshall Goldsmith. Copyright 2009, All Rights Reserved.

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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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