Succession at the Top: Lessons Learned from CEO Transitions

10-11-13-Kaplan.pngThere is no more vital decision for a bank and its board of directors than choosing who leads the organization. Yet leadership succession represents a growing challenge, as banks too often lack sufficient executive depth or proper succession planning. In the worst cases, banks with both weak succession and performance issues may even be encouraged to find a merger partner.

Having conducted more than fifty CEO/succession search assignments, we have clearly seen that superior talent really does make a difference, especially for banks intending to remain long-term survivors. From those accumulated client experiences, we have identified the following seven lessons learned from CEO transitions:

Lesson #1: Succession Really Does Matter!
It is imperative that boards exercise their fiduciary and governance responsibilities, and grapple with the challenges of leadership succession. The continuity of leadership promotes continuity of strategy, and both regulators and governance activists are more focused than ever on succession. There is also a growing body of information which affirms that a lack of planned orderly succession can have a significant impact on the value of the company.

Lesson #2: Identify the Obstacles to Succession Planning.
Who is the stumbling block to planning for the bank’s future leadership? Is it the CEO who refuses to accept that he/she will not live forever, or are there directors who do not want to raise this issue with their friend the CEO? The board has a responsibility to tackle succession no matter how awkward it may be, so have these conversations early and often.

Lesson #3: The Succession Process Is as Important as the Outcome.
A robust, thoughtful and thorough succession process adds huge credibility to the board and the bank, regardless of whether your successor comes from within or outside of the bank. Take the time up front to ensure the alignment of your organization’s strategic plan with the ideal profile of your next CEO. The board can’t spend too much time getting to know its future leader.

Lesson #4: You Really Can Do It! Develop Your Own Methodology and Timeline.
Each succession situation and timeline is different, so there is no definitive template to follow. That being said, I would suggest boards begin efforts no less than 30 to 36 months before a potential transition of leadership. It is also very helpful to formally anoint a succession committee of the board (note: this is not a search committee) to take ownership of this process and manage the many critical elements along the path. That makes the succession effort more manageable and provides for accountability.

Lesson #5: It Is Critical to Handle Potential Internal Contenders Well.
Ideally, your succession planning process will promote the development of several internal contenders, and it is important to manage their expectations from the beginning. Handling internal contenders well has a significant impact on how they feel about the company, and how they see their future in the organization. Position the entire exercise as a developmental opportunity, and provide constructive feedback and specific recommendations for folks who are not selected for advancement.

Lesson #6: The Building Blocks of Talent Development Make a Big Difference Over Time.
Nearly all of the data on succession reinforces the idea that well developed internal successors perform better than outside hires. Thus, efforts to groom high potential candidates for more senior roles should be ongoing. Create a personal development plan for each individual with upside potential. Help them develop stronger and more varied technical skills, as well as more training in soft skills. Whatever talent development efforts you initiate, they will make your business stronger and aid the retention of your rising stars.

Lesson #7: Avoiding the Challenges of Succession May Have a Huge Downside.
Research from FTI Consulting shows that 43 percent of CEO transitions are unplanned. The bank’s value can be impacted by unexpected leadership changes, and such changes can make the bank more likely to sell out.

Institutions that we have seen survive and thrive over a lengthy time horizon have benefitted from the successful execution of strategy, which flows from a continuity of leadership. Bank boards of directors and incumbent CEOs must recognize this imperative, and regularly focus on succession and talent at the top of their agendas.