Who Will Fill Your Shoes? Best Practices for Hiring a Successor

Any conscientious executive knows the value in naming and developing a successor. Given enough time and mentoring, your understudy can learn the ropes, gain critical experience and, when the time is right, take over your responsibilities in what is hopefully a seamless transition. Such leadership succession planning is good for the organization, not to mention the fact that it reflects well upon your own legacy.

David Boggs, practice leader of WK Advisors—a Witt/Kieffer division that offers mid-level executive search consulting services—has counseled countless organizations in healthcare and other industries on leadership succession and how to identify and place mid-level executives who have the mettle to one day excel in the C-suite. In this Q&A, Boggs shares suggestions that senior executives can follow to effectively recruit and mentor someone to fill their shoes.

Q: Many senior executives would like to hire someone who will eventually succeed them. How do they broach the topic of leadership succession with their peers in the C-suite?

Boggs:  I think they begin by talking about the fact that even the best leaders are replaceable and that it’s important to have somebody in line that can keep things moving if they are not around—whether it’s because of retirement, illness, or even being out on vacation for a few weeks. So there’s a short-term need to have a backup, but also a long-term need to have good leadership succession planning.

David Boggs

David Boggs

Secondly, I think they can talk about the value of internal promotion and how it’s a healthy thing for an organization to do. That said, a successor doesn’t always have to come from within—an organization must also to seed itself with people from the outside who can bring in new ideas and eventually assume top leadership positions. So you can discuss hiring a successor if you have someone internal in mind or would like to find someone from the outside. Either way, the important thing is that when you step away, someone else can step in and there is a seamless transition. It doesn’t always work that way—sometimes people being groomed as successors can leave for other organizations, for example—but in most cases it pays off.

Q: If an executive sees a potential successor within his or her organization, what is the best way to raise the issue with this individual? 

Boggs: I think you simply talk to the person about the concept and get their verbal commitment that it is something they are equally interested in. Then, you work together to make a plan: What areas are they already strong in? Where do they need to get additional experience? How will they gain needed experience? Are there committees or projects on which they can take a leadership role? How many years will it take the person to be ready for my job?

If you have a leadership succession plan and make a specific effort to develop the candidate, everyone has an idea of how the development can succeed. Within this framework you can even introduce the concept that it is okay to fail along the way as long as learning and development are taking place.

Q: If a person is tabbed as a “successor,” do you give him or her a new title and even a higher salary, as a way of showing your commitment?

Boggs: Yes. If there is someone you seriously see as a successor and who the organization really wants to retain, you absolutely consider “beefing up” the title and giving more responsibilities and compensation. It’s also a good idea to get your CEO officially on board with the concept, as another way of showing your commitment to a potential successor.

Q: If a successor is sought from the outside, how should the opportunity be presented to potential candidates? What kinds of concerns will they hope to have addressed? 

Boggs: Many of the same ideas apply. You want to create a title and job description that reflect the fact that this is a position in line for the next role, and then to have a plan—for example, to rotate the person in certain areas over the course of a few years—to ensure that they are prepared to assume the next position.

The interview process should also involve key individuals who would back up your vision. For example, if you’re a CFO looking to hire a successor, have the CEO and other members of the executive team involved, as a way of showing the organization’s commitment to planning for leadership transitions. The interview process should involve people who are able to talk about the next level.

Q: What kind of qualities should someone look for in a successor? Should the executive be looking for someone in his or her “own mold”?

Boggs: That’s a good question, because often people in a “number two” position play a tactical rather than a strategic role, but in a successor you want someone who has a balance. So if you see someone who excels in a tactical, support role, you must also assess their ability to develop their strategic side. If the potential is there, then more strategic responsibilities can be built into their development plan.

Should you look for someone in your own mold? It depends on the organization’s needs, but in many leadership succession cases looking for someone different than you makes more sense because that person can bring a new approach and fresh ideas to the position. Also, being different will allow your successor to develop his or her own brand and reputation—so as not to be compared to you, the predecessor, all the time.

Q: What is a typical succession timeline? How do all parties ensure that proper development of the successor is taking place over the course of that time?

Boggs: Ideally, it would be three to four years, and definitely no more than five. Less than three years is certainly doable, but it puts more pressure on everyone involved to get your successor up to speed on what it takes to do your job.

Q: What if the plan for a successor changes in midstream—for example, the company is acquired and its leadership changes? Can these issues be planned for in advance?

Boggs: Sometimes there’s no way to fully account for this possibility. However, if you do have a written plan for succession in the beginning, at least it gives all parties involved something to discuss when the situation changes. You can go to the new leadership and say, “We’ve been developing this person as my successor, here’s why, and here are the prior promises we put on the table.” If you’re up-front about why you chose someone and what that person can offer the organization, there’s a good chance the new regime will agree and allow the succession to play out as planned. 

Note: Follow WKAdvisors on Twitter (@WKAdvisors) and LinkedIn, or visit its website for job postings and more information.

By Paul Thomas, Witt/Kieffer Senior Writer

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