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The Enlightened Kingdom
How the Right Organizational Environment Can Support the Quiet Leader
CEO successions are complex
It goes without saying that CEO successions are complex. Not because there aren’t enough good leaders, but because organizations tend to think reactively rather than proactively. Often, their experiences with the past leader end up informing what they look for in the next. In the case of listed companies, there is the added complexity of the ‘environmental’ factor—namely, that of Wall Street or its local equivalent. More often than not some analyst ends up deciding whether a leader is performing well on the basis of quarterly forecasts which they may or may not meet. If they’ve delivered, it sets up expectations for the subsequent quarter, and if they haven’t, they are written off. Once the Board starts vocalizing its concern, it’s not long before the whole Kingdom is convinced something is terribly wrong.
And then what happens? We change the King!
In my previous article, The Reluctant King, we considered the inner world of a quiet leader and discussed some key questions that leaders and their organizations need to ask of themselves. We now take a closer look at the environment in which this leader/King operates and explore its integral role in the success or failure of the quiet leader.
What is the environment the leader is operating in?
Going back to our story of the King, here is a hypothetical situation: The Kingdom was put together by the father through several battles in which he succeeded in winning other Kingdoms and added them to his. As a result, a large area came to be ruled by different, smaller Kings that all led with different values, cultures and aspirations at their core. The King was asked to consolidate these distinct Kingdoms into one nation. In those times, once a Kingdom was acquired, the defeated Kings were either killed or sent to exile, giving the acquirer total control. This effectively meant the citizens had to now adjust to and follow a new regime, which they either grudgingly did or revolted in a bid to alter the outcome of that acquisition.
In the modern day, this is done more professionally — we let the leaders of the acquired company stay for a while to provide ‘continuity’ as the integration process takes place. We then train these leaders to either fall in line with the acquirer’s way of doing things or leave the company for other roles.
I do have my own theory on such leaders who spark continuous acquisitions. For them, it’s not just about acquiring the assets, or a business, it’s also about acquiring the people and have bigger and bigger kingdoms to rule. However, I digress and that’s a story for another time.
Now back to our quiet King and his accession. There are some important questions we need to ask. For example:
• Did his father and the team of wise ministers who planned the succession process not recognize that the new King’s style was different?
• If the situation was one that required a strong visible leader who could lead from the front, make bold decisions and take risks, why then was he appointed?
• If he was given the throne as a succession to his father (as would happen naturally in those days), why did his father/seniors advisors not understand his personality and give him the right support to develop what was needed?
In short, what steps were put in place to ensure the new King’s success by his father and the panel of wise ministers?
What is the role of the panel of wise ministers, aka the Board?
The Board’s role becomes critical in this context. The first question should be: What are we hiring for? If we drill down further, subsequent questions might include:
• Are we hiring for the present or the future?
• Are we trying to bring in someone who replicates the previous leader’s persona if they were great for the organization? or
• Are we looking to hire someone drastically different because the previous leader was not right?
Organizations often tend to define what they don’t want in a leader first. Then they explore what is left over from what they don’t want or what is the diametric opposite of what they had. During the hiring process, the past often defines the present and we end up hiring someone with characteristics we did not like in the previous leader, instead of hiring someone who is suited to leading the organization of the present and the future.
The first step— The role of the Board thus becomes very key in this process. Identifying the key priorities for the organization
It is essential in any leadership succession project to begin by clearly articulating what we are hiring for. Think of what attributes and experiences the new leader will need in order to strategically guide the company on its journey. Don’t forget to keep the culture of the organization in mind – it is a critical variable that can make or break leaders. Finally, explore clearly what the Board’s expectations of this person are going to be, stylistically and experientially, to fit in with the organization, the Board and any other key stakeholders that this leader will need to impact. In short, which King will fit the Kingdom?
At the same time, the Board itself needs to be extremely aligned. A fractious Board can actually damage the process far more than they think. Any number of times a wrong hire has damaged an organization because the Board did not align or articulate well. In an article from the Harvard Law School forum on Corporate Governance, PWC leaders Moats and DeNicola observe that in 2020, 56 S&P 500 CEOs resigned. Of those who quit, 20% did so under pressure, up from 13% the year before (Moats & DeNicola, 2021). This indicates the critical role a Board has to play in getting this right! Wise ministers must be there to support a new King.
Take a hard look at the team below this leader — do they have complimentary skills to support this leader? In the olden days, the King was supposed to have all the answers. Today, we need the leadership teams to contribute in finding those answers. The quiet leader knows this, and s/he will spend time upfront building that team in order for all of them to succeed. If the leader is not doing that, the Board, has a right to question it.
Another common mistake is to confuse quiet strength with a lack of capability. As a leader, making tough decisions around people and business comes with the territory and so keep a close watch on this quiet leader to make sure they aren’t substituting conflict avoidance with capability management. Yes, you need to keep your team happy but what is the cost to the organization as a result? This is something the Board needs to track very closely. Keep an eye on the King!
What is the right environment for a quiet leader?
If, as a Board, you have consciously chosen to hire a quiet leader (and it is not difficult at all to identify that during the process), the next question is what are you putting in place to support this leader’s future success? Stylistically, quiet leaders are highly introspective and connect with people in smaller groups or one-to-one, as opposed to larger arenas. Make sure their plans are created accordingly: give them a strong Board mentor and an external coach from day one so they can bounce ideas, deliberate and revise their approach without feeling pressured or threatened.
Vulnerability is not always a sign of weakness and giving leaders the space to exhibit that is one of the best support systems an organization can offer. Hold off judgment for a bit longer — any new leader takes time to create an impact; quiet leaders will always take a bit longer. Some Kings need time to demonstrate their own, quieter leadership style. But when they do, the impact can be well worth the wait.
Moats, M. C., & DeNicola, P. (2021, September). How the Best Boards Approach CEO Succession Planning. Retrieved from Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance: https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2021/09/20/how-the-best-boards-approach-ceo-succession-planning/#:~:text=The%20best%20boards%20ensure%20there's,in%20the%20company%20proxy%20statement.