30 November 2007

Time to Replace Yourself

Fortune Small Business recently posted an article with this title. While I believe the article is a pretty good rendition of what founders go through when they determine they need some help, the issues touched upon are just the tip of the iceberg and are probably only appropriate from a founder’s point of view. But having been the replacement CEO for four different founders, as a successor to a founder you are often fighting an uphill battle trying to do things differently than the founder - especially when the founder is still peering over your shoulder. Often the founder/CEO may decide they need help, but not know how to accept it. In one of these companies, I used to joke that the founder encouraged me to initiate any changes that I thought were necessary as long as he agreed. This was a difficult charge, since doing only those things that the founder agreed with potentially doomed us to relive the past and not improve the business.

It is a unique founder indeed who is willing to leave a successor alone and let them make what the founder may feel are mistakes in order to take the business to the next level. In my experience, the founders who figured out how to get out of the way and give the new CEO the same full reign they maintained when they were running the show, are the ones who ultimately were able to reap the rewards of a successful liquidity event. The others were drastically different outcomes.

Of course you’ve got to have the courage and the foresight to hire the right successor. I am an advocate of “try before you buy” - hiring a successor CEO as a consultant or in a less invasive role before making a final succession decision. But continuing to hold tight on the reins after making that decision can compound the issues rather than solve them.

I’ve often considered that the best prescription for a founder who has determined that they need to hire a new CEO, is to get completely out of the way - which may require leaving the company - in order to empower the new CEO to make the necessary changes.

Large companies tend to understand this when replacing a CEO. Take the example of GE. Welch engaged in an extensive process to identify the appropriate successor. But when Welch stepped down from the role, he quickly extricated himself from the business altogether to enable Immelt to lead the company in an entirely new direction.

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