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Is Your CEO Succession Up To Scratch?

February 23, 2023

Posted in: WATSON Views


“Such systemic failure has nothing to do with competence, knowledge, or experience, but instead ties to how the CEO transition was orchestrated and whether major steps were missed.”  

 – TLNT 2018

Your CEO has an outsized impact on your organization’s success, now and far beyond their tenure. Yet the data tells us that we’re not setting them up for success.

Look at the numbers above – they are just a sample of the statistics that appear with alarming frequency in studies and articles. But there are ways in which organizations can achieve a smooth transition to a CEO who can carry the organization forward and advance strategy and purpose.

When things go wrong, sometimes the effort simply hasn’t been there – we’ve all read the studies that tell us how few boards are paying attention to succession, even when they themselves believe they ought to do so. And sometimes, there has been an investment of time and energy that just hasn’t delivered.

It’s time for a rethink and a refresh. Here are 10 questions to help you explore where your succession work can improve, informed by fresh thinking about how and when succession truly includes success.

The CEO has powerful insight and unique opportunities to help develop people, and they also know their own plans and aspirations. It is always important to include them in succession planning. And yet, too many boards take a back seat to the CEO, relying on them to (a) set the timing, (b) frame what is required and (c) decide who is an internal candidate. This can lead to timing that is driven by the CEO’s needs, not the organization’s; a view of the CEO role that is anchored in the past and not the future; embedded unconscious bias and limited insight into internal candidates.

To get this right:

  • Be clear that while the CEO’s plans are an input, the board owns the timing decision
  • Even when there is no transition in sight, have a board conversation at least once a year about the board’s view of the optimal timing
  • Put the board in the driver’s seat to identify what the role will require and to assess candidates; draw on the CEO’s insight, but don’t abdicate ownership

A CEO Success Profile is an important piece of the puzzle. It starts with understanding purpose, strategy, and the challenges ahead, and then using that as a platform to understand the skills, competencies, and characteristics of a future CEO. Without it, boards sometimes anchor their thinking in today’s CEO; or they overfocus on what’s highly visible in terms of past leadership roles and experiences, and don’t do deep thinking about the bigger picture of who the right next CEO will be. That limits the selection of the next CEO, and how internal candidates are identified and developed in the meantime.

To get this right:

  • Put the Human Resources Committee to work in developing a CEO Success Profile through a thoughtful process
  • There’s no need to put a fine point on it when CEO succession is not on the horizon, but maintaining a live draft as part of your playbook keeps you ready
  • Use it to ground conversations about internal candidates, their potential, and their development, providing a shared and more objective basis for discussion

We’ve all got views on what great leadership is. As noted above, a board needs to understand what great leadership will look like for the organization today, and in the future. Specificity to your organization’s unique context is important, but we should not ignore the rich body of data on CEO performance and success. Make sure that at some stage, you are checking against the body of research to consider what you may have missed.

To get this right:

  • Seek trusted research and compare the CEO and organizational context and results against this information
  • Lead from what is unique and important in your context, and use the research as a back-check to challenge your thinking; don’t just adopt the research and risk a vanilla succession plan that doesn’t speak to your needs

Classic CEO succession focuses narrowly on who will ascend to the CEO role. In this model, there are winners and also-rans, with some leaders who are singled out for their potential (more on that later) and invested in heavily. Consider the downsides: great leaders who feel they lost the only race that really counts; executive teams with haves and have-nots; a small number of leaders getting access to growth opportunities while others feel stuck.

There is another way. At WATSON, we talk about a Leadership Planning perspective. If we focus on building the best possible team at the top, if we assess and develop each one of those leaders, they will perform and engage – not just in a future role, but today. We increase the number of options for future successors. We reduce the risk of unconscious bias or inequity. We improve the likelihood of retaining leaders who don’t get the nod. Yes, there is a little more investment required, but the payback in increased performance and reduced risk is substantial. And it sets a tone for the whole organization, sending a message that this is a place where everyone can grow, and where a variety of leadership contributions are valued.

To get this right:

  • Provide assessment and development planning to all members of the executive team – and consider casting a wider net to identify potential outside that group
  • Use the data not just to look at individuals, but at the power of the whole team; no CEO succeeds alone, and a strong and diverse leadership cadre gives you more resilience and options
  • Until you are in a live search and selection process, avoid anointing or declaring candidates; that doesn’t mean ignoring who is ready now and who can become ready, but there is power in not creating an in-club amongst the senior leaders

Too often, a board’s appraisal of candidates is based on the CEO’s perspective, a subjective view of “potential” and maybe the board’s limited experience of a leader and their presence in the board room. High-stakes decisions need good data; that means meaningful and objective insight, not just aligned to the current role, but the demands of a future CEO role (via the CEO Success Profile). You will never get perfect predictive data, but most boards can and do ask for a bit more; it’s a worthwhile investment.

To get this right:

  • Ground the conversation in the CEO Success Profile, so it’s not just a vague conversation about potential; consider what real evidence there is of a candidate’s alignment to the profile
  • Undertake a thoughtful assessment process, led by a professional and using a combination of deep-dive interviews and validated assessment instruments; this is how you get valid and reliable insight, along with the analysis of an expert who can put the picture together and give you a real view of strengths, risks, gaps, and opportunities
  • Be cautious of vague terms like “potential”; agree on a shared definition based on real indicators (and be aware of the minefield of unconscious bias here in particular)

Executive development plans often prioritize courses and certificates. Those have their place; senior leaders may absolutely benefit from formal learning, be it from a great peer cohort, or from the sense that the organization is investing in their professional credentials. But at the executive level, the development needed to truly close gaps often takes different forms, such as key experiences, board exposure, targeted coaching, or deep personal insight and change. Courses can be appealing because they feel like a concrete and tangible step. But they won’t close many of the real gaps at this level.

To get this right:

  • Invest in expert coaching when it counts; make sure the coach has what it takes to operate at this level and arm them with assessments and insight to focus their work
  • Give people the experiences they need; it may mean shifting structure and roles, moving executives to different parts of the organization, giving them unique projects or opportunities to work with the board, putting them in front of different audiences (internal and external), or encouraging them to serve on a board

The analogy of a chessboard has become a bit of a succession cliché because it’s a helpful image. You won’t be able to plan for every possible scenario, but it is important to look beyond individual pieces and moves, and to consider the full chessboard. Will some successors be ready before the incumbent CEO transitions? And what if they take their talents elsewhere? Will the chair reach a term limit right at the same timing of a CEO’s departure? Is there a risk of many executives retiring at the same time? Are there executives who would leave if a certain peer was appointed to CEO? Does making a move for one executive unintentionally block another?

To get this right:

  • Look deeply at each executive or succession candidate, and then remember to also step back and consider the full chessboard, and how it will evolve over time
  • Don’t ignore the board when you are mapping the landscape; sometimes a changes in board membership or leadership around the same time as CEO change is healthy renewal, and sometimes it is a dangerous risk or source of instability

Too often, when succession is on the horizon, the end goal is a signed job offer. But the data shows that for new CEOs to succeed, intentional support through their first 12-18 months makes a significant difference. Onboarding must extend beyond their first 90 days. This includes helping CEOs accelerate their understanding of the business (including its leaders), providing the supports they need as they formulate direction and strategy, aligning with them on mutual board-CEO expectations, and building a platform for candid dialogue and feedback. If the CEO transition is a long way away, you won’t plan these details now; it’s about recognizing the work required here and anticipating it in your conversations and your succession playbook.

To get this right:

  • Make sure your succession playbook doesn’t stop at selection; consider a CEO Transition Committee instead of a Search Committee, and build onboarding and 12-18 months of support into the timeline
  • If your CEO-board relationship currently runs on historical knowledge and trust, start documenting roles, expectations, and accountabilities, so there is clarity for the future, and you don’t get tripped up with a future CEO because of different assumptions
  • Have a cadence for feedback and evaluation for the CEO, now and in the future; this should include formal CEO evaluations as well as regular chair to CEO touchpoints for ongoing candid and mutual feedback

At WATSON we often say, “process is your friend.” And it’s true – good process helps in a myriad of ways, including trust, fairness, and better decision-making. Yet this work is also deeply human, and attention needs to be paid at every juncture to the human factor. We often think of high-performing leaders as strong and stoic. But when transition goes wrong, it’s frequently because executives are humans with feelings: the former CEO who is shunted out the door in a way that upsets their loyal colleagues, the internal succession candidate who thinks that the fact there is a search process means they are not considered good enough, the brand new CEO who is sitting outside the boardroom while the board has extended in camera conversations, wondering if their job is at risk.

Paying attention to the people side pays off – and it’s also the right, caring thing to do.

To get this right:

  • Start with the CEO; invest for the long-term to build a trusting relationship with openness and candour so that you can talk about the tough stuff, including the right timing for transition
  • Take the vantagepoint of the CEO or executives to consider how different discussions or actions may land in their eyes, what they may read into things, when they might need an update or reassurance, etc.
  • When it comes to CEO succession, make sure you are aligned with the CEO on any communication to executives; what the message is and who will convey it
  • Ensure that feedback is given constructively and professionally; follow up to make sure it landed as intended
  • Use investments in development to signal to leaders that they are valued, personally and professionally

Many boards tell us that they have an emergency plan in case the CEO is suddenly unable to serve, permanently or temporarily – which happens more than we think. Yet when the time comes they still feel unprepared. Often it turns out that what was called a “plan” was really a name, and maybe not even a solid name. The more you can truly be ready, the faster you can act, and the more clarity and stability you can give everyone, inside and outside the organization, at a difficult time.

To get this right:

  • Understand what the criteria are for your emergency successor and identify people on that basis; have a thoughtful discussion, because you will often find it’s not the heir apparent
  • Revisit the emergency successor at least annually, confirm that the person would be willing to serve
  • Consider having a couple of options mapped out, not just to provide backup but to adapt to different emergency/interim scenarios (no notice/short notice; temporary/longer/unknown timeframe; stable context/crisis context; etc.)
  • Do some of the groundwork to get ready, even if you don’t try to cover off every detail; for example, being clear on who makes the call and how quickly they can confirm an interim or emergency CEO; how to ensure that key advisors are close at hand (labour lawyer, crisis communications expert, etc.), framing what limitations and freedoms the interim CEO may have, etc.

When and how

The table that follows maps out a trajectory for CEO succession – a view of what happens from when you start building the playbook, through to the transition and beyond. Consider where your board is today to identify the work to start now.



First cycle of planning

May be in this stage for several years

When Transition is in Sight

During an Active Transition

After the Transition

Build Alignment

Develop the Bench




Confirm foundations Confirm roles, responsibilities, and principles

Ensure emergency plan is in place

Review and update roles regularly, build practices

Update emergency plan

Clarify roles and practices Reinforce specific roles in transition Follow through for onboarding and support
Understand future needs Develop CEO Success Profile Update annually and confirm alignment Success profile is available and up to date Confirm the profile for search and selection Begin to think forward again
Understand existing talent Map talent, conduct initial assessment, and plan for executive development Deepen understanding of talent and focus on developmental experiences Engage and retain key talent while developing them Ensure internal candidates are cared for in the process, to optimize growth/retention Find growth paths for internal candidates who did not succeed
Explore external talent Identify likely external talent pools and plan to build networks Monitor potential external talent more actively Consider external pools and individuals
Prepare for a decision Ensure roles in the search and decision are clear Lay the groundwork for stakeholder acceptance
Manage selection Conduct effective search and selection Communicate with all stakeholders
Navigate transition Draft a CEO transition plan containing a framework and considerations Review and refresh the transition plan regularly Outline the transition framework and considerations Develop transition plan considering people, onboarding, key relationships, communications, etc. Navigate the transition
Accelerate for success

Set the CEO up for success


Remember, WATSON is here to help. Email to talk about how we can help you board get its CEO succession up to scratch.