Brandt On Leadership -- Happy Endings

Dec. 21, 2004
To ensure your legacy and your company's success, make a gracious and complete exit.

One of the hardest jobs a leader has is, or should be, his last one: finding a successor and then leaving well enough alone -- for good. Yet the business press is littered with stories of CEOs who have failed in this most essential task. From Paul Allaire at Xerox Corp. to Larry Bossidy at Honeywell International Inc., more and more leaders are becoming re-CEOs after finding that their successors don't have what it takes -- or, just as likely, that they never let their successors have a chance to run the place, because these former bosses never truly left. The plight of these re-CEOs and their ill-fated successors is instructive for anyone who plans to leave, whether as CEO or VP or as an entrepreneur who wants to transfer operating responsibility to a professional manager. A quick guide to hitting the road, Jack: Forget about hiring your own successor: Most leaders don't want to hear it, but the fact is that you're not qualified to choose your own replacement. Why? Two reasons. First, you're too close to the job and the business, and more set in your ways than you know. What your company needs is new thinking and new ideas. Many leaders hire successors who are just like them, which means that the organization, rather than moving forward, instead gets a pale copy of what established it in the first place. Let your board or your peer managers help to choose a successor, in the hope that they'll choose the right leader for the next decade, not the last one. Second, many leaders worry about their legacy or memory being supplanted by more talented successors. It's not uncommon, in fact, for leaders to choose successors, consciously or unconsciously, who have no hope of being more successful than they were. Reassuring as this might be for insecure leaders, it doesn't do much for their companies -- or for the employees they leave behind. Do your legacy and your employees a favor, and leave hiring your successor to someone else. Manage your transition in record time: You successor will no doubt want to bask in the reflected glow of your knowledge, your wisdom, your years of experience, and your relationships with key partners. After that two-minute period is over, though, he or she will want to reshape the business in his or her own image, not yours. It's essential that the transition period be as short and well planned as a product launch, with time lines and responsibilities explicitly assigned. Make sure that your successor gets a thorough briefing from you and all other department heads. Make sure that he or she gets any specialized training that he or she needs. Make sure that all relevant resources -- from your files to appropriate reports -- are accessible. Spend extra time introducing your successor to all key external players, from customers to shareholders to community leaders. Most importantly, do all of this in less time than it took your predecessor when you became CEO or VP. The only thing worse than having a mentor who won't let go is being a mentor who finds that everyone has stopped listening. So leave. Get the hell out of the way: Nothing is more painful after being in charge, after being the go-to guy, after being No. 1, than being -- the next day -- nobody. And so the temptation is to kibbitz, a habit that's annoying if you whisper to your successor, but deadly if you confide your anxieties to your successor's employees, customers, board members, and shareholders. It's hard enough to lead an organization these days without the added pressure of fighting ghosts from the past, ghosts for whom time has erased all flaws, and to whom no flesh-and-blood, here-and-now leader can compare. Leaders who can leave with only compliments -- or silence -- for the performance of their successors we call gracious. Leaders who can't, well, we call them re-CEOs -- at least until their stock tanks. After that, the names -- and the legacies -- get worse. As Ray Charles once said, "Hit the road, Jack." And don't you come back no more. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IW, now is editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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