Boards have many duties, from overseeing the long-term strategy of the institution, to approving executive pay packages, to vetting and approving the budget. But one job that they often leave for another day: succession planning. Yet, for forward-thinking banks, having a process for succession not only can strengthen the organization in the future, but also build talent today.
Brian Moynihan, chairman and CEO of Bank of America Corp., recently spoke about this very fact. Despite not having plans to leave the institution he’s led since 2010, the 62-year-old Moynihan explained that the bank reworks its succession plan twice a year.
“We have a deep succession planning process that we go through every six months [on] the board that alternates between the senior most people and then … I do it multiple levels down so we’re always looking,” said Moynihan in an interview last December with CNBC’s Closing Bell. “The board will pick somebody. My job is to have many people prepared.”
Such a clear process makes Bank of America unique, in some regards. While surveys over the years have tried to pinpoint how many companies have formal succession plans, organizations often avoid outlining it to investors, leaving it an open question. The Securities and Exchange Commission revised disclosure rules in November 2020 to encourage companies to outline human capital resources, like diversity rates, employment practices, and compensation and benefits. Of the first 100 forms filed by companies with $1 billion in market capitalization, only 5% of the companies added any additional detail to the succession planning process, according to researchers working with Stanford University and corporate data provider Equilar. Bank Director’s 2019 Compensation Survey found 37% of bank executives and board members reporting that their bank had not designated a successor or potential successors for the CEO.
So much of a bank’s long-term success has to do with having a clear plan if the head of the business must leave. This becomes especially true if the CEO must step aside suddenly, like for a health concern or other emergency. It’s on the board to lead this search. But when done right, it can also become a powerful tool to prepare internal and external talent, a process embraced by the current CEO.
David Larcker has studied CEO succession planning as a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he leads the school’s Corporate Governance Research Initiative. “One of the two key things that boards do is hiring and firing the CEO,” says Larcker. Many boards, though, “do not put in enough time and effort in succession,” he adds.
By not taking an active approach to this part of the job, it can lead to the wrong hire, resulting in years of poor management. Larcker says one of the reasons for a lack of proper succession plans is often because it’s one of the least exciting roles a board undertakes, so it gets put to the backburner. Plus, since you rarely replace the CEO, it’s not always a priority.
Larcker and his research team sought to identify what occurs when a board lacks a succession plan. They looked at scenarios where the CEO left abruptly, either because the person resigned, retired or made other transitions. These are often the reasons disclosed to the public; in reality, the company may have fired a CEO without stating that fact. Out of the various scenarios, the researchers identified situations where the board and CEO likely parted ways due to performance.
Out of all the media citations, 67% of the time the company named a permanent successor in the announcement; in 10% of the cases, it appointed a permanent successor but after a delay; and 22% of the time it named an interim successor. Those moments of upheaval provide investors with the clearest insight into whether the board took a proactive approach to succession, since the plans aren’t often public.
When a company named an interim successor, that was one of the clearest signs that the organization fired the CEO without a plan in place, and the stock performance of the company performed the worst after the announcement. Also, it’s worth noting that 8% of the time, the company named a current board member to the CEO role. When that occurred, the company’s stock price often performed worse than when internal or external candidates were chosen.
What separates the organizations that can name a successful permanent successor from those that can’t? Often, it’s the organizations that have a clear line to the talent that’s growing inside and outside of the bank.
John Asbury knows all too well the need for this line of succession — it’s how he got the head role at Atlantic Union Bankshares, Corp., a $20 billion public bank based in Richmond, Virginia. When Asbury was tapped as CEO in 2017, he followed G. William Beale, who had helmed the bank — then known as Union Bankshares Corp. — for almost 25 years. The bank had done a full executive search starting two years before Beale stepped away. Now, despite not having any plans to retire, Asbury, 57, takes the job of building succession within the entire organization seriously.
“There are too few people in the industry who understand how the bank actually works or runs front to back,” Asbury says. “Oftentimes they have their area of specialty and not much else.”
Asbury, who sits on the board of directors as well, works with his human resources and talent evaluators to identify those within the organization who can fill executive roles. In addition to empowering them as executives, he gets them face time with the board. This provides the board with the ability to interact and know the talent that the bank has in the stable.
“We want these folks to understand how the organization works, and we want them at the table to talk about not just strategy for their business unit, but the bank strategy as well,” Asbury says.
Asbury recently showed this leadership style in a public way by announcing that President Maria Tedesco would add the role of chief operating officer, and he would hand over managing many of the day-to-day operations to Tedesco. This isn’t a succession plan put in place. Instead it’s giving Tedesco the ability to have 85% of the organization reporting to her, while she and other executives at the bank continue to report to Asbury.
Asbury thinks the move was needed to allow him the freedom to focus on growing Atlantic in other ways. But it also provides Tedesco with hands-on training in managing the organization. Despite the move, Asbury says that it doesn’t prevent him from working with the board on succession plans.
The compensation committee, which Asbury does not sit on, also runs succession planning at Atlantic Union Bank. Sometimes boards may be hesitant to discuss succession if the current CEO views the discussion as antagonistic. But Atlantic Union undergoes an emergency succession plan evaluation once a year — currently, Tedesco would step in as interim CEO if something unexpected occurred to Asbury. She even sits in on every board meeting except when the executive team is being discussed.
It’s a conversation that boards cannot be afraid to have. “If the CEO is on the board, that committee or board, has to own the process,” Larcker says.
What doesn’t work when it comes to succession planning? Having the new CEO step into the company while the outgoing CEO continues to helm the business for a few months to a year, added Larker. This design creates confusion from both the leadership and the staff on who they should listen and report to. “Ultimately, it’s a bad sign,” Larcker says.
Asbury knows that all too well. When he took the Atlantic Union role, Beale held the CEO position for three months while Asbury got acquainted with the organization. Within a few weeks, though, Beale let Asbury know that he would clear out the office and Asbury could call him if any questions arose. “Shorter is better in terms of transition,” Asbury adds.
That can only happen with a plan in place.