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5.7 Succession Planning: Best Practices

Succession planning is a dynamic process too often given short shrift when it is regarded as an human resources–led exercise rather than a high-priority, comprehensive board-led process. High-impact succession planning is a continuous leadership “optimization” process with the goal of identifying and developing a pool of talent armed with the skills, attributes, and experiences to fill key leadership positions, including that of CEO, as well as the cultivation of a talent pipeline to meet emerging leadership needs. Succession and development processes that are rooted in best practice principles have the following components:“The Role of the Board in CEO Succession,” a best practices study published by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) in collaboration with Mercer Delta Consulting, April 2006.

  1. Plan 5 to 10 years ahead. A multiyear process is essential to develop and prepare internal candidates versus recruiting from outside the company.
  2. Involve the full board. The full board is required in critical parts of the process (establishing criteria, evaluating candidates, and making the decision) and should not be relegated to a committee.
  3. Establish an open and ongoing dialogue and an annual review. The board and the CEO should maintain an open and ongoing dialogue on succession planning. A review of the plan and candidate assessments must be held at least once a year.
  4. Develop and agree on a comprehensive set of selection criteria. Criteria for the new CEO should be developed with the company’s future strategic needs in mind and include bottom-line impact, operational impact, and leadership effectiveness dimensions.
  5. Use formal assessment. Formal assessment processes from multiple sources provide information that helps boards objectively assess candidates and identify development needs.
  6. Interact with internal candidates. Board members should be given ongoing opportunities to interact with internal candidates in various settings.
  7. Stage the succession but avoid horse races. Candidates should be placed in a series of expanding roles that give them the opportunity to learn and grow, and allow directors to assess their abilities. The potential successors should never be publicly announced, so candidates do not feel they are competing for the role.
  8. Develop a good working relationship with an executive search firm to identify, screen, and attract external candidates. While many boards prefer to develop internal candidates because they are familiar with the “territory,” the pool should be enriched with talented outsiders.
  9. Have the outgoing CEO leave or stay on as chair for a limited time. The outgoing CEO should either leave the board immediately or stay on as chairman for a transitional period of 6 to 12 months maximum in order to avoid potential leadership conflicts.
  10. Prepare a comprehensive emergency succession plan. Emergency succession planning should be dealt with as soon as a new CEO takes the helm. The board should review the plan every year thereafter.

For some final wisdom on this subject, consider Warren Buffett’s reassuring words to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in his 2005 annual letter:

As owners, you are naturally concerned about whether I will insist on continuing as CEO after I begin to fade and, if so, how the board will handle that problem. You also want to know what happens if I should die tonight.

That second question is easy to answer. Most of our many businesses have strong market positions, significant momentum, and terrific managers. The special Berkshire culture is deeply ingrained throughout our subsidiaries, and these operations won’t miss a beat when I die.

Moreover, we have three managers at Berkshire who are reasonably young and fully capable of being CEO. Any of the three would be much better at certain management aspects of my job than I. On the minus side, none has my crossover experience that allows me to be comfortable making decisions in either the business arena or in investments. That problem will be solved by having another person in the organization handle marketable securities. That’s an interesting job at Berkshire, and the new CEO will have no problem in hiring a talented individual to do it. Indeed, that’s what we have done at GEICO for 26 years, and our results have been terrific.

Berkshire’s board has fully discussed each of the three CEO candidates and has unanimously agreed on the person who should succeed me if a replacement were needed today. The directors stay updated on this subject and could alter their view as circumstances change—new managerial stars may emerge and present ones will age. The important point is that the directors know now—and will always know in the future—exactly what they will do when the need arises.

The other question that must be addressed is whether the Board will be prepared to make a change if that need should arise not from my death but rather from my decay, particularly if this decay is accompanied by my delusional thinking that I am reaching new peaks of managerial brilliance. That problem would not be unique to me. Charlie and I have faced this situation from time to time at Berkshire’s subsidiaries. Humans age at greatly varying rates—but sooner or later their talents and vigor decline. Some managers remain effective well into their 80s—Charlie is a wonder at 82—and others noticeably fade in their 60s. When their abilities ebb, so usually do their powers of self-assessment. Someone else often needs to blow the whistle.

When that time comes for me, our board will have to step up to the job. From a financial standpoint, its members are unusually motivated to do so. I know of no other board in the country in which the financial interests of directors are so completely aligned with those of shareholders. Few boards even come close. On a personal level, however, it is extraordinarily difficult for most people to tell someone, particularly a friend, that he or she is no longer capable.

If I become a candidate for that message, however, our board will be doing me a favor by delivering it. Every share of Berkshire that I own is destined to go to philanthropies, and I want society to reap the maximum good from these gifts and bequests. It would be a tragedy if the philanthropic potential of my holdings was diminished because my associates shirked their responsibility to (tenderly, I hope) show me the door. But don’t worry about this. We have an outstanding group of directors, and they will always do what’s right for shareholders.

And while we are on the subject, I feel terrific.