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The Dilemma of Succession

We have a saying in strategy: if the horse is dead, get off it. Here’s a succession variation: don’t be the rider whose horse dies beneath them.

Occupying the leadership position has many perks. Aside from the material, the incumbent exercises privileges of outside influence. One’s opinions carry weight, nay, carry the day. People attend to your words. There is freedom to see one’s thoughts move swiftly into effect.

Yes, there are burdens. Leaders get tired of “carrying the backpack” [as my friend Walt so piquantly puts it]. And being the decision point of power plays and squabbling. Being the only one who really “gets it” and having to insist that others toe the line on urgency, carefulness, drive. A recent mentee’s complaint is typical –
“Why is it always me? Me that has to be unrelenting, precise? How can they be so offhand about schedule, about exactitude?”

But there comes a time when the person is out of synch with the organization being headed up. Organizations move on one trajectory and people on another. It’s inevitable. It’s not a question of “if” it’s a question of “when”.

Leaders whose egos have the best of them persuade themselves that they are embodiment of the company. They become like de Gaulle, the old warhorse president of France – “apres moi, la deluge..”. Their ego needs are more important than the long term welfare of the entity they head up.

Seldom will anyone have the courage to draw one’s attention to the mismatch between personal exercise of the role and the changing demands of the company.

I’ve made two transitions recently, both uncomfortable. Both [in my view] necessary. One prompted by a person with the guts to confront. One self initiated. Both undertaken to give “the horse” longer, more vital life – under someone else’s stewardship.

I used to be the Chair of TEC 217 – a peer advisory group for CEOs. It was the intense center of my professional life for 32 years, as I strove to solve the many perplexing questions the role carried with it:

  • How to keep raising the bar with new members coming in
  • How to reinvigorate the tenure longer termers
  • How to refresh the experience for all
  • How to ensure the vital stuff was being discussed in the group
  • How to keep the pipeline of prospects moving along

I navigated that territory successfully for all those years and by all accounts, this was one very effective group in moving the biz fortunes of its members ahead.

A couple of years ago, my most influential member, Pat, sat across the table and asked me what my succession plan was. This was not an idle inquiry. He meant it. Not in an unkind way, but with an eye to where the group was in its evolution. And the need for change.
6 months later, this exemplary group is in the care of a new chair, the very able Bob Outhwaite. All reports are that the group is thriving.

Of course, I wanted him to come on slow, to receive all the magic guidance only I could impart. In his wisdom, after a reasonable period of uploading “my way”, he put a hand on my shoulder. “I’d like to fly solo now”. Reluctantly, and powerless to do otherwise, i finally had to let go of my baby.
Wouldn’t you know? He’s done fine.
Why was this so necessary? Couldn’t I just carry on?

Well, yes. But the horse – “my” prized stallion – was at risk of dying underneath me. It needed a different kind of rider to take it to new pastures. Specifically, no one new was joining. So I had to move on, move out of the way. The horse was not “Mine”. It belongs to the members and to those who can benefit from it in the future.
So my own reluctance my own comfort and familiarity had to give way before the imperative of ongoing life.
“Feel free to call if there’s anything I can do!”
There have been no calls.

I’m a professional gatherer of the sum of experiences of many leaders [some past, some current] so i can winnow out the benefit of hard won learnings and pass them on to the next crop. I see many incumbents struggle with mismatched personal and corporate mandates. I note their entities straining beneath them to get some new leeway. Sometimes when there is poor synchronization between leaders and the led, the leader can make a major adjustment and can ride on.

Often not. The bell has been rung. It is time for succession. Not a dry abstract “passing of the torch”. A real, wrenching recruiting and releasing.

With the salve of passing time, seeing this necessary process more clearly becomes easier. I’ve moved on – to coaching a different sort of leader on a less demanding schedule. I find it strange that now I’m working with and guiding heads of larger organizations, and in new ways, as my approach has matured and changed. I’m even less prescriptive, more exploratory….

We all age and continue in our development. Other requirements and interests assert themselves. I’d urge you all to read this fascinating article on the shifting nature of contributions as leaders move along the scale – the author talks of “different intelligences” at work in successive eras. Here it is –

I’ve since made another fruitful transition. Perhaps I’ll say more about that another time.

The dilemma? Resolving between continued personal gratification of the leader and the emergent needs of the company. It’s not for the faint of heart: made more difficult by the politeness of the “subjects” and the comfort of the “monarch”.


Doug Bouey
Catalyst Strategic Consultants Ltd.

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Doug Bouey, President
Catalyst Strategic Consultants Ltd.

Calgary, AB // Phone: 403.777.1144


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