Succession Planning—Avoiding the Jekyll-Hyde Problem

Scenario: A highly regarded leader retires or leaves a company. Over time, his replacement increasingly seems to have come from a different planet. It’s a day to night comparison between the leader and his replacement—Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.

What makes this experience common, and what can be done to prevent it?

A Succession Plan Goes Awry

Many years ago, I served as president and board chairman of a non-profit organization. I threw myself into my two-year term. Despite the challenges and difficulties, I felt good about my work and received generally positive feedback.

I didn’t think about succession until well into my term when the deadline approached for nominating a successor. Who should or would replace me?

I began a succession scramble. I asked one board member I liked and respected. “Too much time required,” she replied. I asked another—similar response. I began to get nervous. I tried a third—uh oh! Another rejection!

Getting desperate now, I asked a board member whom I was confident would say “yes.” Smart and hardworking, “Richard” was also ambitious—and somewhat abrasive. From time to time, employees and board members had been on the receiving end of his blunt observations.

Although skeptical, the nominating committee accepted my recommendation that Richard succeed me. The membership voted in favor, and Richard soon took over.

Almost from day one of his tenure, Richard’s different leadership style surfaced. Instead of collaborative decision-making, he administered strong doses of old-school “command and control.” Friction ensued. Relieved to have passed the reins, however, I kept my head down and resisted urgings to intervene.

Tensions worsened. Recrimination and conflict became the norm. After several rounds of verbal fisticuffs with the board, Richard resigned in anger and under pressure. The whole episode was fraught with pain, lost opportunity, and harm to our organization’s mission. Needless to say, it did wonders for my “legacy.”

What Went Wrong

In hindsight, as leader, I committed several mistakes. First, I waited too long to focus on succession planning. It should have been part of my thinking from the beginning of my term, not toward its end. Second, I spent insufficient time reflecting on my organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (the proverbial SWOT). And I spent insufficient time reflecting on the behavioral traits that would be most important in a successor. Instead, I focused on my needs—getting the successorship monkey off of my back. Lastly, after the transition occurred, I adopted a passive role, happy to be unburdened with responsibility. My leadership coaching came down to, “Here’s the baton. Run!”

How a Star Profile Can Avoid the Jekyll-Hyde Problem

From several experiences since that event, and from having coached and advised leaders, I recommend creating and using “Star Profiles” for succession planning. As you’ll recall from other posts (click here for a second post), Star Profiles are tightly-worded, action-oriented descriptions of the behaviors that matter most in a particular job.

To illustrate, let’s say you’re preparing to step down as president and board chair of an organization that provides counseling, coaching, and other services to at-risk youth in your community. With input from the board, employees, and others, you write a Star Profile that captures the core behavioral traits and actions of someone you think will successfully lead the organization. Here’s an example:

President/Board Chair

  • Combines humility and drive in working with the board and staff to further our center’s mission
  • Promotes teamwork throughout the organization from volunteers to staff to the people we serve
  • Energetically drums up financial and other support from members, donors, and public sponsors
  • Helps keep our financial house in order

Next, when and how do you use the profile?

  1. Before you interview candidates, discuss it with board members and other important stakeholders to create coherence and optimism about the future.
  2. Use it to disconnect your “Stupid Switch.” This switch gets flicked whenever you conflate an applicant’s ability to get the job with his or her ability to do the job. If a candidate has ever played you like a fiddle, you know exactly what I mean. Forget trying to get a “feel” for the candidates. Instead, share each profile characteristic and ask for specific past experiences that will help you predict whether you’ll see the profile behaviors once they’re on the job.
  3. Use it as a recruiting tool for candidates you should be recruiting. Before I approached Richard, recall the board members who rebuffed my overtures. With a Star Profile, my primary point wouldn’t have been their relieving my burden. Instead, it would have been the specific profile characteristics and why their past behavior as board members gave me confidence they’d provide the needed leadership. From subsequent experience, I can predict they’d have had a much tougher time telling me “no.”
  4. After the new leader takes over, the profile can continue to provide value. It can provide the basis of an ongoing dialogue between current president, past president, board, and staff about the things that really matter.

Great leaders care about the legacies they leave. That legacy is more than the results you produce while in the job. It includes what you did to ensure that your company or organization was in good hands after your departure. Don’t make the mistake I made. Treat succession as a major responsibility and use a Star Profile to help. Then you’ll leave a legacy worth leaving.

Jathan Janove is the managing shareholder of the Portland office of Ogletree Deakins. Follow Jathan on Twitter.