Coaching for Succession


by Garold L. Markle


Catalytic Coaching, performed properly, is not an administrative add-on.  It is, quite simply, how a manager does her job.  It’s how an employee actively navigates his career.  As such, it is a powerful aid for assisting executives in performing one of their paramount responsibilities – succession planning.

Jim Collins says that it’s leadership’s responsibility to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and everybody in the right seats.  This is a contention with which few will argue.  The only rub is that Mr. Collins offers little pragmatic advice on how to make that happen.

That’s where Catalytic Coaching comes in.  Catalytic Coaching is a structured system designed to populate the Collins bus both quickly and efficiently.  For the purposes of this article, that includes identifying and training the next bus driver.

Succession planning may be something that starts in a closed room with a small group of elite executives.  At some point, however, what looks good on paper must intersect with reality — face to face with the individuals whose lives are affected.

A few years ago, I began an In-Flight Training session with a CEO recently who had just sat through a full day of digesting the basics of Catalytic Coaching.  She learned with the rest of her organization how to be coachable in an Employee Orientation session and participated actively in the practice sessions that make up a Coaches Workshop.  She’d also read my book.

All this preparation, and yet, when it came time to sit down and coach her first direct report, she wasn’t sure what to talk about.  Most of the members of her leadership team had been with her for a long time and were functioning on a pretty high level.  In her world view, she didn’t have any problems on which to create four Areas for Improvement for each.  While she didn’t say it directly, I believe she was questioning whether the exercise would be worth the time for high-performing, “fully-developed” senior executives.  Like many top officers, she had embraced the program as a more enlightened replacement for their long-loathed traditional evaluation process thinking that its primary value would be experienced at more tactical levels further down the line.

Picking up on the CEO’s confusion, I asked her to forget about her direct reports for a minute.  Rather, I requested that she to talk to me about herself.  Where was she in her career?  Where was she going?  How happy was she with her current role?  Were there any big changes coming?

It took only seconds for this distinguished business leader, rapidly approaching her 65th birthday, to confide that she was much closer to the exit than the entrance.  In fact, she was very close.  While she’d not yet talked to anyone formally about it, she was thinking of approaching the board soon to let them know she would like to be allowed to retire — preferably, sooner than later.  The issue causing her pause was that she didn’t know who would be best to replace her.  She had been thinking about it a lot, for a long time, but she was truly uncertain.  Not having an answer prevented her from moving forward.

resized 2.I asked the puzzled CEO if she thought that a viable replacement was already on her team.  Very quickly, she replied, “Yes, I do.  The board will likely want to go through the formality of looking outside, but it would be very disruptive to the culture to do that.  My dilemma isn’t a lack of qualified candidates to replace me.  The challenge is that we have too many!”

I quickly agreed that this was a good problem, but a problem, nonetheless.  Looking her in the eyes, I continued, “You do realize that Catalytic Coaching is designed to help you with this challenge, right?  Now we know exactly what we’re going to talk to people about!”

Using the Yellow Sheet, the president followed the script and listened intently as each direct report described what they wanted to be when they grew up.  And, if they didn’t speak voluntarily about eventually occupying her job, she asked them directly if they wanted it.  She also asked why.  She finished it off by requesting that each identify who they would prefer to work for, if not her or themselves.  For those who didn’t supply an explanation, the CEO queried as to why.

After sitting for an hour with each of her top four direct reports, the ideal replacement candidate could not have been more obvious.  Responses to the first why question proved to be most telling.  For one, ascending to the throne was a form of personal manifest destiny.   She wanted to be CEO because it was the top rung on the ladder.  She’d consider herself a failure if she never ascended to the summit.  Another insisted that, while he wasn’t in love with the job requirements, he was the tallest pygmy.  His pedigreed credentials were clearly the best.  A third wasn’t really ready and she knew it, having little exposure to two critical aspects of the job.  She asked to leave her name in the running, nonetheless, just in case she was thought by others to be the best solution. The fourth, and final direct report in consideration, expressed initial reluctance in assuming the top role because he truly liked working for the present incumbent.  He was also wary about what taking the top spot might imply for his family.  Once he was convinced to at least consider it, however, he shifted gears and spoke passionately about the culture that he would like to create and the dramatic expansion of the organization’s mission that could be accomplished by adjusting their strategy ever so slightly.  When the fourth candidate finished speaking, one glance at the near tearful eyes of the CEO revealed that she’d found her successor.

It wasn’t just the why question that proved so decisive. The probe into who could work for whom also yielded valuable insight.  All of the other three said they could work for the new-found obvious choice, if he were the one chosen.  This was in stark contrast to at least one of the others whose selection would likely catalyze a mass exodus of leadership talent.  Two described that fearful potentiality as inciting something akin to Armageddon.

With the Blue Sheets that followed, the CEO made it clear to two of the would be contenders that they would not be on her short list of replacement recommendations.  She gave each specific rationale that applied to them individually.  She wanted to prepare them for the inevitability of change and didn’t want them to be surprised when they were not chosen.  Her top choice got very direct guidance on how to narrow the gap between his current skill set and that required to be effective as a CEO.  The backup candidate was given encouragement and concrete development suggestions for the long haul, but sobering counsel on challenges that might thwart upward progress anytime soon.

The sessions were fabulous to observe.  There were moments of high drama and moist eyes.  Careers, and even lives, were affected in those sessions.  It was anything in the world but a compliance-driven form completion exercise.  The CEO used Catalytic Coaching to perform the critical task of finding and preparing a successor.  Two weeks later, she made her recommendation to the board.  She announced her retirement schedule and named her successor at their annual company picnic the same month.  Now that is what I call speeding the pace of significant change!

So, how can a manager use Catalytic Coaching to actively plan for succession?

  • Boss First:  Move the head and the body will follow.  What are you working on?  Where are you going?  What do you need to do differently?  How can each individual on your team contribute toward accomplishment of your higher order goals?
  • Think Symphony:  The true measure of an orchestra is not a sum of its soloists.  The conductor needs to work with each individual contributor to produce work that flows meaningfully together yielding a harmonious whole.  So does a coach.
  • Ask Why:  Find out who wants your job and explore their motivation.  What drives them?  Power?  Money?  Prestige?  Influence?  Control?  Is their why self-serving or noble?  Is it compelling in a way that prompts others to follow?
  • Organizational Design: Coaching is not just about selection and training; it’s also about defining and tailoring roles.  Consider how to shore up deficiencies in a direct report by pairing them with team members possessing complementary skills.  Encourage her to build those allegiances now.