The Succession Opportunity

I run a small company, and it's time to pick a successor. I can make the case for any of four people. Now what? Losing someone could hurt. — Michael Rueckert, Sioux City, Iowa

You have a rare and wondrous problem. Indeed, the exact opposite of the usual case, in which companies find themselves empty-handed at succession time, and, in desperation, are forced to back up a Brinks truck to pay for an outside hire. So, first of all, congratulations on building a leadership team with such bench strength.

But we understand your concern; you've got four stars and only one top job, plus the sinking feeling that your small company can't take an exodus of its most experienced managers. Your instinct is probably to forge some kind of compromise solution, picking one person and giving the others job titles and money to stick around in support roles. That approach can work, but if your candidates are who you think they are, the likelihood of all of them staying put is, well, low. Few real leaders are satisfied with second-tier roles or maintaining the status quo.

And, in fact, your goal right now shouldn't be downside protection. It should be finding the person who can take your company to the next level. You may feel as if you have four great candidates, but it is highly unlikely that they are interchangeable. Not all of them have the "stuff" for the challenge ahead, meaning the kind of insight and courage that will be required to reinvent your organization when you step aside. You need to push yourself to identify the single candidate who does.

Will that move prompt the runners-up to leave? It's very possible, due to feelings of disappointment or embarrassment. But don't focus on that too much. Their departure will actually be a favor--for them and the company. For them, because it certainly sounds as if they earned the right to run their own shows, and they deserve the challenge and fun of it. And when other companies show up to "steal" them away, make sure their severance packages are generous and contain some form of noncompete clause. That will help everyone.

Their departure will be a favor to your company because, in our combined experience, keeping failed candidates around is too often disastrous. Each candidate's sense of letdown, compounded by the bad vibes of his or her followers, enervates the organization. By contrast, if the runners-up go, you can reach into the teams they surely built along the way to find replacements. These new managers may not come as "fully loaded" as their predecessors, but they will probably be bursting with new ideas and positive energy.

Basically, you don't have a problem as much as an opportunity. With four candidates to choose from, you're guaranteed to pick a successor who will hit the ground running. Yes, there may be an initial jolt to the company when one or two of the runners-up depart. But soon enough the change will open the doors of their careers and bring fresh air through your own windows, too.

My team has been forced to put up with an incompetent manager for two years. I spoke to the regional head and was told they were "working on it." That was six months ago. I don't want to be seen as a whiner, but I am thinking of going to the CEO to get some action. Your opinion? — Anonymous, Atlanta

If you take your case to the CEO, you'll get action all right! And that sound you'll hear is the collective groan of everyone who has ever watched in wonder as some poor, naïve soul has tried to pull an end run. In fact, the fate of people who go to their boss's boss to complain is so well-known that we would be reluctant to answer your question--if we didn't get one just like it virtually every day. Sure, the details are different, but the final quandary is the same: I'm frustrated with my boss. Can I break rank?

For the record, the answer is usually no--unless you have a big safety net or another job in hand. End runs backfire 80% to 90% of the time. Few bosses reward people who sneak around the organizational chain of command. Moreover, most companies are painfully aware of bad bosses and struggle to find a way to force them out. Shoving that point in their face won't make you a hero; it will make you an annoyance.

If you dislike your boss so much that you are ready to burst, you really have only two foolproof choices: Wait it out or walk out. Most end runs only end you.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at For their podcast discussion of this column, go to

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