Companies & Industries

Issue: Jack Connors: Managing Succession


In picking his successor as head of ad agency Hill Holliday, founder Jack Connors focused on an insider

Succession planning is a huge issue for companies. Many don't to it properly, if at all, resulting in disruptive management transitions that are bad for morale and business. In companies where it's approached seriously, it's a preoccupation for both senior management and the board. For Jack Connors, founder and chairman of Boston ad agency Hill Holliday, succession planning was a personal matter.

Connors, who started the business in 1968 with three other partners, built it into one of the country's premier ad agencies and sold it to Interpublic Group (IPG) in 1998, had an opportunity few founders of private companies who sell to large public ones do: He could choose his own successor, according to an agreement he had with the new owners. While his original agreement with Interpublic called for them to pick his successor, when they asked Connors to stay on longer than the five years first called for, he agreed, provided he could manage the succession.

"It was a matter of trust and mutual respect," Connors says of this unusual pact. "They allowed me to choose my successor because they knew the points that we were putting on the board every year in terms of profitability. They had come to trust my judgment."

Connors trusted his own judgment about deciding it was time to go in 2000. "At the risk of putting words in Yogi Berra's mouth, when you sell your company, you don't own it any more, and so, my hunger, my level of interest, began to recede ever so slightly," Connors says. "So gradually, my lack of hunger began to show itself in the lack of growth of the company, and Hill Holiday had always been on a growth track, so it was important to bring in people who could reenergize that growth."

Shared Values

Equally important to Connors was bringing in someone who shared his values: about the work itself, the way both clients and employees were treated, and about the agency's commitment to charity. "In terms of trying to find the next generation of leadership, what I was looking for was someone who shared my values, and I would say what was most important was someone who was committed to the clients, who had the same level of loyalty to those clients and the same level of desire that those clients be made heroes in the eyes of their CEOs."

And he knew he wanted an insider to run the business he only half-jokingly calls his "fifth child."

For Connors, the ideal choice was Mike Sheehan. He was an insider, having served as creative director at Hill Holliday. There was only one problem: Sheehan had left the company in 1999, after being there for five years. Still, Connors, who understatedly describes himself as a "salesman," was confident he could convince Sheehan to take the job. "There was no short list," Connors says. "There was no list, period. Only Mike. There were others who thought they might accede to the throne, but I wanted Mike because of his combination of intellect, sense of humor, talent, but primarily his values as a human being. That's why he stood head and shoulders above anybody."

Connors admits that if Sheehan had said no, he probably would have had to look outside the company for the "the maturity, the wisdom" needed to provide leadership. "It was very atypical of me to consider going outside," Connors says. "I always liked to promote from within. I always felt that a lot of the folks at the big agencies had an enlarged ego and large sense of themselves, and this was never about me or was never about Mike. It was about what was best for all the folks who work for us, all the clients, the community that depended on us for charitable contributions."

His choice of Sheehan, who took over as president in 2001, was affirmed so quickly and completely that Connors accelerated his plans for leaving. "When I encouraged Mike to rejoin Hill Holiday as president of the company, I was chairman and CEO. I told him three years to the day of his coming back I would name him CEO.

Time to Go

"And probably a year into his presidency, I called him into my office and I said, 'Forget the three years.' That was really another reflection of his demonstrated ability but also that it was time for me to exit Stage Left."

Connors stayed on as chairman and now holds the title of chairman emeritus, but as he says: "Chairman is right next to the exit. Once you become chairman, it's almost over. And so I started getting involved a little more deeply in some of the charity work that I do."

For his part, Connors considers the succession, well, a success. "At the end of the day, this is very much a business. It's a for-profit company whose objective is to return money to the shareholders of IPG," he says. "But within that, we always felt an obligation to the people who work here. They've dedicated a piece of their lives to the success of this organization, this particular mission. And so it's not just a matter of paying them, but it's a matter of looking out for them."

That same attitude prevailed with clients as well. "We went deeper than was traditionally allowable on behalf of making things better. That's what we do. And Mike has taken that to an art form," Connors says proudly of his successor.

Respect for a founder's unique role in company culture is key to preserving the best of it, says the CEO of Hill Holliday

Mike Sheehan, who rejoined Hill Holliday in 2001 and became CEO in 2003, recognized that to take the company to the next level of growth, he had to preserve the culture that founder Jack Connors had forged while being a true leader in his own right.

"In taking over the company, I saw two paths," says Sheehan, who insists he never aspired to be CEO—of Hill Holliday or anyplace else. "The first path—and I understood it and I appreciated it—was to continue the cultural platform that Jack had built here." That culture is characterized, says Sheehan, in no small part by the familial feeling that Connors had fostered, with both employees and clients, and the commitment to pro bono work and charitable contributions. In fact, Sheehan takes great pride in telling people that Hill Holliday is the only ad agency in the country with a community relations department.

"Part of the interest in coming back here was I liked working in that culture and I wanted to continue that. By the same token, I wanted it to change," he says. "I thought that to grow it appropriately and to reach its full potential, the next generation had to be about a team of people who worked well together and could grow the agency."

Emphasizing the Team

Indeed, in taking over for an iconic leader, Sheehan saw certain challenges. "Jack is a very team-oriented person, and he was great about passing on the leadership to me and to others," says Sheehan. "But there was always that perception that Hill Holiday equaled Jack Connors. It wasn't necessarily reality, but perception is reality, so in effect it was."

That's in part why Sheehan puts so much emphasis on the idea that the new leadership is about the team, rather than him. "I am very, very aware of the difference between what I do and what Jack did," says Sheehan. "Jack started from nothing. I came to Hill Holiday when it was successful and established. I think it's why the transition worked. A founder, an entrepreneur who starts something from nothing, gets a great deal of respect from everyone here."

Sheehan himself is quick to credit Connors for his part in making the transition smooth and successful, by knowing when to support Sheehan and when to let go. "I certainly felt the presence of Jack side by side [when I first returned], and then over the course of the next few years, he made sure that he took a step back."

If Sheehan were to pick one incident that encapsulates the change in leadership, it would be his decision to move Hill Holliday from its headquarters in Boston's inconic Hancock Tower to new headquarters on State Street. "I thought it would be a good idea to coincide with the transition of leadership to move the agency from where we were," says Sheehan. As convinced as he was that moving the agency closer to downtown was the right thing to do and would send all the appropriate signals, he admits to having some concerns about telling Connors.

"I was afraid that I would offend him," Sheehan says. "It was his vision to go to the Hancock Tower. But he didn't hesitate when I told him. He said, 'That is a great idea, you should move. It's time.' He knew for all the right reasons why it was time to move on."

Sheehan says that when the time comes he hopes he will handle his own transition as gracefully as Connors did, though he won't be following Connors into the role of chairman. "There will only ever be one chairman of Hill Holiday, and that's Jack," he says. "I think as the founder, he deserves that."

Patricia O'Connell is Management Editor for BusinessWeek.com.

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