Book review: Succession: Are you ready?, by Marshall Goldsmith

The best-organised CEOs often view their own succession as too personal a topic and fail to tackle the task. Kevin Kelly hails a book that hits the nail on the head.

Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

I'd like to see a pie chart showing the contribution of leadership books to deforestation. Amazon's latest count is 317,000 tomes and each year brings a new crop of thousands. No wonder Amazon has just relaunched its wireless reading device, Kindle.

On the other hand, most of us agree that good leaders are better than bad ones, and that leadership needs to be studied, because it is complex and difficult.

So how to decide whether a tree was felled for a good cause? I apply two tests to books on this subject: one, have their authors written 20 interesting pages and then distributed them randomly among 350 uninteresting ones? Two, is what they say so true that nobody could possibly disagree?

Most leadership books fail these tests. Marshall Goldsmith's passes, and on both counts.

First of all, Succession: Are you ready? is succinct. It is a short read (one to two hours), and it talks to me about how to leave my firm in good shape.

The scope of the book is explained carefully upfront: how CEOs should prepare themselves and their organisation for the challenge of succession.

The author also explains what the book is not. It concerns itself only with the behaviour of CEOs, their successor and their senior team: there is no attempt to advise about the technical or strategic aspects of succession. And the book is directed at successful CEOs of major corporations, who are leaving of their own accord, usually before retiring.

So although it discusses only a small part of this important subject, it does so with authority. Goldsmith has coached dozens of business leaders, and written widely about organisational behaviour and especially leadership.

Second, this book is interesting. There are no seismic revelations, but it makes a strong case for its emphasis on behaviour. CEOs are used to thinking in advance for their organisation, but they regularly fail to think ahead in the same way about succession, because it's so personal. Successions are cauldrons of emotion.

For CEOs, it is hard to relinquish influence, and the dynamism that got them to the top of the organisation equips them very badly for retirement. The author has a nice story about a discussion he arranges with a group of outgoing and retired CEOs. The participants love it because talking candidly about the difficulties of succession is a rare privilege for them. But this is also a difficult transition for the leading members of the organisation who will stay.

The successor has to learn fast how different the role of CEO is to any previous role he or she held; also, what to keep and what to change? There are the also-rans who didn't get the job but whose support is essential for the successor. There is, of course, the board, without whose blessing the new CEO's task is doomed. And major clients can have an impact on who succeeds. Since the potential for damaging ambiguity is enormous, this short, practical guide justifies the loss of a few trees.

Succession is divided into seven short sections on the preparation of the outgoing CEO, the selection of the incoming CEO, and the handover.

As you might expect from an executive coach, the book's centre of gravity is the coaching role of the CEO, and this is a useful perspective. There are good tips, such as the importance of making sure that all stakeholders take responsibility for the new CEO's induction.

And there are some good anecdotes, like the one about the incoming boss being made to realise that everything they say and do is now symbolic. It's show time every day, and they can't afford an off day - any more than Broadway actors can afford an off night.

The most valuable insight in this memo to CEOs is about control. We are held responsible for the performance of our organisations. We are rewarded when our firm does well and we're (usually) punished when it does not. But the extent of our control is debatable. The quality of the decisions we make every day depends partly on how lucid we are about what we can and cannot control.

The same realism is central to effective succession. We are more likely to look good if we help our successor succeed, and our own vision for the firm is more likely to endure. Goldsmith reminds the reader that the coaching process is not about the coach. Leadership - when it's inspired - is not about the leader, but the organisation and the people he or she leads.

The timing of this new book is not ideal. It's for readers who have the luxury of planning and organising their succession in a way that serves all parties.

In the unusual economic cycle we are experiencing now, the majority of CEOs don't feel that confident. And the book has some laboured metaphors, such as the one about passing the baton.

Not that I'm against metaphors - in general, I swear by them - but after five pages, the connection between Olympic relay teams and senior management was wearing very thin.

But these are minor reservations. This is a provocative and thoughtful book for CEOs - and other leaders - who have short attention spans.

Succession: Are you ready? Marshall Goldsmith

Harvard Business Press; £11.99

Kevin Kelly is CEO of Heidrick & Struggles.

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