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August 17, 2009

Your Next Generation of Leaders: Donkeys or Race Horses?

Blog cartoon 8-19-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

When you host a bad party, it's tempting to sneak out the back door and pretend someone else hosted. Not surprisingly, a lot of chief executive officers are doing just that. They appear to wake up one day, notice profits are tanking and employees are unhappy, and decide to quietly slink away. According to The Conference Board research I highlight this week in the Business Intelligence section of Inside Training, last year the chief executive officers of more than 1,400 public companies left their positions by the end of the year.

Your company may not be so fortunate, and are still stuck with a clunker (one you won't be getting any additional cash for, by the way), but however happy or sad you are to see your executives go, go they will eventually. The unsuccessful ones will stick around, similar to donkeys picking at a worn patch of grass; the successful ones will gallop away like sleek race horses, ready for the next challenge.

So, who are you going to replace them with?  One horrible thing is many companies have nobody but other executives trained by out-going executives to step into leadership positions. If your company is like many I've heard about and witnessed, it's not a good thing to be in that position. Unless your executive board has created a company that's profitable as well as rewarding to work for, few of your employees will be excited to hear the good news that Sunny Boy Protege is next in line for a spot at the top. "Why not Rainy Girl Number Seven?" those aching for a sea change in management might ask.  "We could use an executive capable of washing away all the misery the CEO we're happy to be rid of caused. Why do we have to now be led by his protege?"

The good news is you don't—if your company is smart.  Many succession plans were put into place before the Great Recession of 2008 and Beyond set in, so it may be time to review those plans. Now that your current executive board may not have been as fantastic a long-term hit as you thought (especially if you're in the financial sector), why not wipe the succession slates clean, and start over. There are alternatives to Sunny Boys 1, 2, 3, etc., aren't there? 

Begin by asking yourself which employees and managers spoke up prior to your current financial woes, and weren't listened to, or maybe even were punished?  Do you think your company is big enough to acknowledge having made a mistake, and is now willing to embrace the strategies and ideas it previously said were wrong?  It may, in some cases, have nothing to do with anyone being wrong. It might just be that a financial crisis as steep as the one we've experienced for nearly a year requires a new approach to the way you do business—one your executives' current round of proteges may be incapable of delivering on. If the employees and managers who had good ideas your company dismissed before the financial collapse were frustrated enough to leave shortly thereafter, replacing the proteges on your succession rosters will mean a renewed recruiting effort.

Since many of you can't afford to hire additional employees, refreshing your succession ranks will mean deciding who to purge. To get back to the analogy of the donkey versus the race horse, which of your future leaders resemble the former; how many the latter?  Donkeys are cute, but if I were you, I wouldn't want them running my company. Race horses often are too slick and aloof to be cute, but they're fast and efficient. The donkeys at your company, rummaging through the same worn patch of grass, may be the golden boys of your less-than-stellar (thankfully) soon-to-be-departed executives. They're the friendly ones who love to tell you the latest strides made by their two-year-old, but are not so eager to tell you what happened to last month's profit or why they're perennially behind in their work load. The race horses could be those of your employees who who speed through their work, turning in a fabulous performance, but aren't in the "golden" circles because they aren't as cuddly.

To change succession course, consider a  leadership retreat with about a dozen managers or up-and-coming executives who have been with your company for at least the last few years, but whom you hadn't considered for leadership positions because—to be honest with yourselves—they aren't friends with the right people. To get a feel for those with potential whom you may have overlooked, try activities you haven't tried before at a leadership development event, and be sure the meeting isn't set up to favor one cultural demographic over others. What kind of setting do you choose for these events?  Is it usually a couples or family event those who don't match that demographic wouldn't thrive at?  What kinds of topics are discussed?  Are they topics that address all areas of your business, or does the conversation lean too heavily on new product development, neglecting most other areas of the business?  Do you find leadership in all areas of your business, or do you find your leaders most often from one or two facets of the company?  If so, think of all the leadership talent you may be missing. What if your next great CEO is a marketer, and most of the leaders you've been grooming are in finance? 

It might be that your succession just doesn't have a good shot at succeeding. Remember that last time you experienced an awful business debacle—when your competitor(s) pulled the rug out from under you with a product that far surpassed what you were offering?  Your donkeys must have been too busy mulling over same tuft of grass they had been mulling over for the last 10 years to hear competitor race horse hoofs coming.

Now, if you're not careful, you could be faced with Part II of that awful debacle: An executive board composed of donkey descendants.

When was the last time you reviewed your succession plans?  Given the business world's ongoing financial woes, are you still comfortable with those you've slated as next-in-line?


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Jesse Vanderwerf

It is important to have multiple talents and strengths in your leadership team. It is true as well, in a time of crisis to have a strong confident focused leader (a racehorse). It is also true that you need the cuddly leaders to keep moral up and carry the load so to speak.

I just started working for a new training company that has a simulated role play program and have also been hitting all the major blogs for more ideas about how training is taught, thought of and done in the ever changing market place.

I'd love some feedback. Please take a look at www.dialogcoach.com and let me know your thoughts on how we do things.



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