Choosing Your Successor

. . . by Jeff Haltrecht

Jeff Haltrecht is a principal Leadership Coach at the Polaris Learning Academy and the Facilitator of the Polaris Alumni; he is a regular contributor to Polaris Digest

What type of leader will you hire to succeed you?

This scenario is written from the perspective of a business owner, but it could easily apply to anyone with a team of direct reports.

You are the owner and President of a successful mid-size company you founded 20 years ago.

The most recent seven-year period has been very good for business, with growth in the double digits.  Existing customers are buying more, while new clients continue to come on-board.

To support the growth, you promoted three of your most trusted and longest serving employees (who have been there almost since the beginning) to Vice President roles a few years back, allowing them to build their teams and support the growth.

You are a visionary leader and a great company spokesperson, leaving the day-to-day operations to your Vice Presidents.  They thrive in this environment and enjoy your hands-off approach, while still being accountable for delivering the results throughout the year.

The business is coming to the end of a solid growth spurt, and you know the next phase will come from international expansion.  None of your senior people have global experience.  You decide to hire a President from outside the company to fill the ‘experience’ void, moving yourself to CEO.

Will you hire a leader who is visionary and hands-off like yourself, or will you hire a hands-on person who enjoys putting ideas to action?

Before jumping to conclusions, think this through carefully.

Great leaders play to their strengths while hiring people to tackle areas they are weak in.  If you believe this theory, then you would hire a hands-on person to complement your visionary skills.

But wait!  Your current Vice Presidents are all hands-on people too.  Might that create friction between a new President and existing Vice Presidents?  If you went through with this hire, might that force a Vice President or two to leave?  Costly move perhaps.

Another option would be to hire a visionary with international experience.  The Vice Presidents would feel good with this move, but what about you?  You enjoyed the conversations with the VPs because they were in the details.  Will your talks with the new President be what you need?  And will you be happy so far removed from the business at this critical juncture?

As an owner of a company, hiring your own replacement is a strategic move that must be well thought out — on par with investing in a new manufacturing facility.

A few more questions to consider:

  • Why appoint a new President when what may be needed is a General Manager for an International division?
  • If you did hire a new President, what could be the division of responsibility between yourself and this individual, keeping you engaged in the strategic activities?
  • What are the development needs of the existing Vice Presidents and is there the opportunity to promote one of them from within?

In the scenarios presented above, I believe two options stand a better chance of long-term success:

  1. Hiring a General Manager for a new International division or…
  2. Promoting one of the Vice Presidents from within to lead the International growth

Both options keep you strategically engaged in the business (critical to achieving the vision), while allowing key leaders to continue to deliver in their areas of expertise. 

You may question the validity of promoting from within, given the current lack of International experience.  But that is a functional view of potential.  Rather, evaluate the Vice Presidents on their leadership skills and entrepreneurial capabilities.  You can always hire them (and yourself) an advisor to fill a specific International knowledge gap when needed.

Making this new strategy and structure work entails strong communication and a forum for dialogue and decision-making.  Consider establishing a monthly leadership meeting to give the executive team this much-needed place to align and share best practices.

Complement these meetings with one-on-one mentoring discussions with each Vice President and the International General Manager once or twice per year.  You will be creating a very healthy culture of communication, while ensuring the business team remains focused on adding value to its stakeholders.

What would you do in this situation?