Companies & Industries

What to Know About Coaching Your Successor


Dos and Don'ts for coaching your successor so the new leader enters to applause, you bow out gracefully, and the transition is seamless

Preparing your successor can be a leader's greatest challenge. If you handle it the right way while you are still at an organization, it can mean that your successor enters to applause while you bow out gracefully. So what do you need to know about coaching so you can ensure a smooth transition?

First, let's assume you've done your due diligence on the process with your successor. That means you've decided whether or not you will coach your successor; you have hired an executive coach for those areas in which you are not an expert; and you've involved key stakeholders in determining your successor's strengths and challenges. You've also reviewed all the feedback—keeping in mind to look for trends, consider the organizational environment, and highlight key patterns; and you've had organizational surveys taken so you understand how you as a leader have influenced your organization.

Finally, you have gathered many interesting, provocative ideas for leadership success by asking each preselected stakeholder three simple questions:

1. What are the person's strengths that will help him or her be a great leader?

2. What are the developmental challenges that he or she may need to overcome in order to be a great leader?

3. If you were this person's coach, what specific suggestions would you give him or her—either strategic or tactical—that would help the successor become a great leader?

Now that you've done all of these things, it is time to establish what you need to know about coaching. First and foremost, stop and look at yourself. It is good to be aware of common problems leaders have that can limit their effectiveness as coaches. Following are a few for you to review. Who knows? You may have one or two of these problems yourself.

Why doesn't he/she act like me?

It is natural for successful human beings to place great weight upon their own strengths and undervalue their own weaknesses, especially when evaluating others. Add to this the fact that the more successful we become, the more we likely we are to fall into the superstition trap, which simply put is, "I behave this way. I am successful. I must be successful because I behave this way." And you have the recipe for thinking that your way to success is the only way to success.

Yes, you certainly are successful because you behave in certain ways. It is also true that you are successful in spite of some of your behavior patterns.

If you take a good look at your strengths and weaknesses, you may come to realize that you tend to forgive the weaknesses in others whose weaknesses mirror your own. You may also come to realize that you punish those whose flaws—even though they may be very minor—fall in your area of strength. Let me explain.

Years ago I worked with a CEO who was a great communicator. He had the best verbal communication skills of anyone I have known. When it came time to pass the baton, he could not accept the fact that his successor, whose strengths were strategy and marketing, was not as great a communicator. He was so dogged about this point that the board had to intervene and the CEO was forced to leave. This could have been a positive succession, but it turned out to be an unfortunate event for the previous CEO. You don't want this to happen to you.

Why doesn't he/she think like me?

It is easy for good leaders to believe that their strategic thinking is "right,;" that the way they approach situations is the correct one. This is one of those beliefs that you are going to have to let go of if you're going to have a positive process. While it can be hard to watch your successor make different decisions than you would make, try not to reverse them unless it is a decision that will hurt the company.

Your successor, not you, is going to lead the organization in the future. Let him or her begin to make a difference while you're still at the company. Put your ego aside.

Why doesn't he/she love my friends?

If you respect and admire someone, you may overvalue their input, and the converse is true as well. It can be hard to face that your successor may respect and admire someone you don't. Their personal preferences will be different from yours. Respect this and let them choose their own trusted advisers.

You may notice after the transition that the status and power of some of your good friends is actually lessened. They may not be "in the circle" at the top. As a result of this loss, they may leave the company. Both you and they may find this tough. If you know your friends will not support the new leader, especially for personal reasons, take them aside. Try to convince them that this is the best leader for the future of the company. Explain that the leader needs support and a clean slate. Set your successor up to win.

Readers: Any comments or reflections on the challenges of coaching your successor or ideas for successful successions will be greatly appreciated.

Marshall Goldsmith is the New York Times best-selling author of What Got You Here Won't Get You There—a Wall Street Journal No. 1 business book and Harold Longman Award winner for Business Book of the Year. His newest book, Succession: Are You Ready?, has just been published by the Harvard Business Press. He can be reached at Marshall@MarshallGoldsmith.com, and he provides his articles and videos online at MarshallGoldsmithLibrary.com.

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