Succession Planning for the Top Dog

I was watching an old Cesar Milan rerun the other day on how to train puppies and in it he introduced a new pitbull puppy named Junior.  Now for anyone who watches the Dog Whisperer, you know that his all time fav and constant pit companion, Daddy, passed away in February of this year at the ripe old dog age of 15.

In Cesar’s Way magazine, Milan discusses his selection of Junior:

“…when the time came – about a year-and-a-half ago – I took Daddy along. Any newcomer in our house would first have to get Daddy’s approval. That’s how we wound up at the home of a friend whose female pit bull had given birth to a litter about two months earlier. One puppy, all gray with just a little dash of white on his chest, caught my attention immediately. Some people – the Dali Lama, for instance – have this calm energy. So do some dogs. Daddy has it. And I quickly realized that this little gray puppy had it too. In fact, he reminded me of Daddy when he was a puppy…”

This got me thinking about succession planning.  That is what Milan was doing when he found Junior – preparing for a new Daddy or top dog.

When was the last time you had succession planning on the agenda?

Executive transition is a crucial moment in any organization’s life and should be broached even when nobody’s anticipating a change in leadership.  Think back to 2004 when McDonald’s CEO Jim Canalupo died from a heart attack; the company named Charlie Bell six hours later.  Then a few weeks after that, Bell was diagnosed with cancer and the board again needed to make a replacement.  Sometimes a company has time to prepare – and sometimes they don’t.

Without a plan, an executive leaving can be uncertain, painful and difficult, both operationally and politically.  It’s hard to think strategically when you’re busy putting out a fire.  So, here’s three things to think about in preparing for succession.

Have a bus book.  Robert VanHook and Jackie Eder-VanHook call this the “what to do if the executive is hit by a bus” plan.  A bus book is a compendium of critical information about an organization.  While it doesn’t take the place of succession planning, the book can help an interim executive get up to speed while the organization assesses its next step.  Bus books should include contact information, organizational policies and procedures, financial statements, audits, budgets, board minutes, staff lists and resumes, important contracts, etc.  Remember, it’s a supplement to the succession plan, not a substitute.

Ensure that there is a succession contingency plan. With a plan in place, the organization will have coverage while leadership decides what its next step should be.  The plan should include an assessment of where the organization is, where it wants to go and what kind of leadership it needs to help it get there.  The plan should also include an outline and timeline of succession procedures, a communications plan that discusses who should be told of executive departures and when, a plan for how the leader will be replaced and a financial plan for covering the costs of replacement, whether the successor comes from inside or outside the organization.

Align the succession plan with the organizational strategy from a people as well as a business perspective.  This is key.  There are a ton of examples out there of senior leaders brought into place in a succession arrangement – and failing spectacularly.  Emotional intelligence is just as important as business acumen.  Think of when Sam Walton retired in 1988 and put David Glass in place.  Wal-Mart did great financially, but from an emotional intelligence perspective, not so much.  Same thing with Carly Fiorina and HP.  Great culture shift when she took over the reins, but at a huge cost to employees.  It was no surprise that employees at one of the HP plants passed out Ding Dongs to announce “the witch is dead” when Carly was fired in early 2005. 

Finally, make sure that your succession plan has a process to recruit high potential employees, develop their skills and abilities and prepare them for advancement.  Succession planning is not just for senior leadership positions; it is often the mid- level positions that are the most crucial to the organization in terms of business and cultural success.  These mid-level positions are a great feeder pool and often are ignored in favor of bringing in someone new in. 

Planning takes energy and time but it’s worth it.  Do you have a Junior ready in your organization?



  1. […] Succession Planning for the Top Dog, Heather Vogel (@hrwhisperer) reminds us of the importance of succession planning in another piece […]

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