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Rugby lessons for succession planning

Rugby lessons for succession planning
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Business, like rugby, is a team game that keeps evolving.  When Clive Woodward won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, rugby was a kicking game. Now it is a power game and it has taken a new style of leader in Eddie Jones to make England competitive again. To win on the global stage demands the right leadership at the right time. Many company chairmen are aware that changing their CEO can boost performance, share price and EBITDA.  But the execution of change does not always deliver the desired end result.

The blindside flanker

Some chairmen work on the basis of entitlement. They only look internally and award the CEO position to a ‘deserving company man’ who has all the requisite experience, knows the organisation like the back of his hand and breathes the culture. Dynamism, vision and diversity do not always weigh heavily in the decision. These types of CEO are unlikely to rock the boat and, although they can yield successful results, on the whole they stifle a company’s transformation.

The lower league coach

Other chairmen seek advice from their headhunting partners - often traditionalists with a similar mindset. With an expert search firm, the likelihood of finding exceptional talent increases, yet many fall back on obvious candidates who fail to inject real change. This can happen for two reasons: either the search firm gives the chairman what he wants, lacking the courage and conviction to challenge their outdated thinking, or the company’s selection panel is not open to a new approach and rejects the ‘left field’ candidates.  

The boardroom maul

Then there are the chairmen who genuinely want to find a game changing CEO with the hallmarks of a modern leader: value centric, innovative, customer focused and digitally savvy. Yet even this does not guarantee success and can result in a talent clash that divides the board. Some members support the incoming CEO and embrace new ideas, while others resent change and pull in the opposite direction. The new order is often not as vocal as it should be, allowing the feet draggers to stick to their comfort zone. The resulting dysfunctional board is less aligned than before and not able to effect radical change.  

The winning set piece

The executive search firm’s job is to find a new CEO who will not just give the share price a temporary spike, but bring lasting change. A talent clash in the boardroom needs to be managed, such that the disruption seems subtle and not antagonistic.

Assessment tools, rather than intuition, can help identify values, attributes and potential. The right candidate will have the demeanour to encounter opposition and convert the disenchanted. They will be unwavering in their pursuit of change but accept that the entire team must be united and that a balance of old and new can be healthy if handled sensitively. They will allow the board time to adjust, reconfigure and refresh, but stamp out any ongoing institutional undermining.

The best new CEOs will also seek advice from executive search partners. The firm that placed them will have done their due diligence, working closely with the chairman to get the framework right and create a climate in which the incoming CEO can achieve success.  Post-placement sessions should take place regularly to assess progress and mitigate the risk of rejection or diametrically opposed board members.

Rising to premier league champions

Successful organisational transformation requires three elements to come together: a chairman who is astute enough to seek authentic change and accept a degree of risk; an HR chief with the power and influence to stand up against the traditionalists and naysayers; and a leadership advisory firm that is a fully committed strategic partner intent on getting the right business outcome for their client. With a combination of all three, companies tackling change can cross the gain line.

Marlin Hawk is a leadership advisory and executive search firm headquartered in London.

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