I’ve always wondered why talent management and succession planning ended with the layer beneath the top leadership roles. Once people have what they believe to be a sufficient number of names to fill in for those top slots, the pipeline is declared robust and people congratulate themselves on a job well done. No one ever thinks about talent management and development for the C-suite, which includes the CEO and their direct reports. Many organizations operate this way. Ever notice how there are fewer development opportunities as one moves up the ladder? Despite the terminology, leadership development is often reserved for the up and comers. Lack of leadership development for the leaders themselves is yet another reason why it’s lonely at the top. Leaders play into this as well. They think they’ve made it. It’s always the deeply flawed ones that act like they have nothing more to learn—and there are lots of them.
Once a leader is in place, the assumption is that there are 3 three options left: ouster, retirement, or a better role at another company. I propose a fourth option—the leader’s next role at the right time. Let me explain. If the ultimate aim of “good” talent management is about putting the right person in the right role in the right environment, why not extend that to the top leadership roles? You see, just like all other talent, leaders have their strengths. It’s about matching that talent with the right opportunities. Those opportunities are created by availability of the role combined with particular business needs. Presumably, companies intend to put the right leader in place to fulfill those needs at that point in time. If you need someone to build up a business, you get someone who is good at that. You wouldn’t want someone who is good at maintaining things. Both types can be good leaders, but only in the right environment suited to their capabilities. In other words, there’s a leader for every season. This is how CEOs have built reputations on Wall Street around certain archetypes—i.e. those that specialize in turnaround, strategy, operations, new business, pleasing shareholders, etc. There are very few chiefs in the executive suites known for being “all arounds”. These leaders for all seasons are a rare breed. There should be more of them, hence the need to manage and develop talent at the top.
Given the speed and fluctuations of business, needs change. Once a particular leader has fulfilled the set of previous needs and new needs arise, it is time to look at whether another leader with different experience and strengths is required. Very few organizations manage this well. The recent announcements of two founding CEOs stepping aside for the growth of their business are welcome examples where succession planning and a leader’s self-awareness can work together. It helps organizations foster the maturity of their business, realize their strategies, and manage change. Think about how painful the alternative is: leaders that won’t let go, political upheaval with boards, businesses suffering under the wrong leadership, bad PR, etc.
If I had my druthers, here is how talent management at the top would happen:
1. There should be an emphasis on the right person, in the right job, in the right environment all the way to the top. It’s not about when someone is due for that promotion or appointment, but rather whether they are ready to fulfill the role in the context of the current business needs.
2. Organizations should focus on building more all around leaders, or leaders for all seasons. That means putting the right leader for the season in place and managing their development to expose them to their growth areas. They might lead in one area, but be a learner in another. Those that want to stick with their specialty or passion as leaders for one season should plan for the next role, internally or externally. In all cases, an organization should plan ahead with their leaders what markers or achievements will indicate readiness to move on. While we’re at it, why don’t we extend this to the boards? Make board members better board members for time that they are there, partner them with the C-suite to manage true leadership development and succession planning.
Remember those 3 other options? They still exist. The complexities of leading companies can’t be minimized. However, this fourth option allows organizations to plan for inevitable change more purposefully, and with less drama. It is my belief that talent management of the C-suite is a green field opportunity, primed for experience design à la Design of Work Experience (DOWE) and additional research.
Reaching the pinnacle of one’s career should be recognized. It is truly an achievement to make it to the C-suite. It is this outsider’s opinion that we should treat these people not as deities or despots to depose, but as what they truly are: top talent.
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