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A Peaceful Transfer of Power
Loss Leader #11: Succession, Six Bullets, The Chicago Seven, and strategic sorcery
At the end of 2019, stats were released showing that a record number of CEOs had left their jobs in the previous year: just over 1,300 between January and October to be exact.
From the McDonald's CEO who had an affair with an underling to the WeWork CEO who held an IPO for magic beans, some were felled by gross misconduct (I refuse to call it scandal), some were ousted by their boards and all of them were staring down the barrel of a recession.
The numbers for 2020 aren’t yet in, but it looks like that record will be broken again, as CEOs deploy their golden parachutes above a Covid-ravaged landscape. January 2020 set a record for the most CEO departures in the US in one month — 219 in all — and that’s before shit got real. Throughout the year, a steady stream of leaders have announced their ouster or planned departures from places like Hulu, Credit Suisse, Salesforce. Disney and, for some local flavour, the TDSB.
While some continue to hoist themselves on their own petards (that’s a euphemism), others are clearly bailing in the face of overwhelming socio-economic sea change, ie, making room for fresh leadership to contend with completely upended market realities they’d rather not face.
If I had to summarize, I would say that last year CEOs left because they sucked. This year they’re leaving because everything sucks.
But what doesn’t make sense to me is the fact that stories about this trend keep using words like “market shock” and “interim CEO”. Why are people so caught off guard by changes at the highest ranks of power?
The only constant in life, as we well know, is change, and no one should really be unprepared for churn in their executive ranks. So why is succession planning something we reserve for HBO dramas about dysfunctional Murdoch-esque families?
If you are a leader of an organization, whether it’s a Fortune 500, a non-profit or a political party - you should always have an exit strategy. Boards and CEOs alike should be highly motivated to cultivate heirs, and ensure a smooth transfer of power. As a leader, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to go out on the up, and be remembered as someone who helped ensure success beyond your tenure, and as a board chair or shareholder, I don’t know why you wouldn’t work hard to avoid any post departure spasms that would affect your bottom line.
This week, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman demonstrated great leadership by forecasting the end of his leadership.
Just two years into his second term, he announced that he would not be seeking reelection.
“In my view, Manitoba has far too many career politicians. I won’t be one of them,” he said.
Rather than leave people guessing til the last minute, Mayor Bowman made space for the city and potential candidates to prepare, and to have a robust conversation about who should be his successor, and why.
The only argument against this move is that it renders you a lame duck. But there is strength in clarity, and nothing stopping you from fiercely pursuing unfinished business, even with the horizon in sight.
No one can say that Rose Marciano wasn’t a hugely effective CEO at Patagonia right up until her departure, having transformed the apparel company into a groundbreaking force of social and environmental responsibility.
When her successor was named recently, he seemed set up for success and no one was shocked. Why? Because she had orchestrated the transition as smartly as she had done everything else.
“We have been planning my succession since late last year and believe now is the right time for the next-generation team to step in to reimagine the business for a bright future,” she said to Fast Company.
Bad leaders get fired (hopefully). Good leaders take themselves out.
How much should a leader talk? I’ve been thinking about this recently, watching daily and often conflicting briefings from different levels of government and various Chief Medical Officers of Health. There is such a thing as talking too much as a leader, and it has as much to do as resonance as it does with trust.
In this interview, Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse talks about his “Six Bullets” theory. Throughout the season, he largely lets players work out their own issues, and trusts them and his assistant coaches to guide, direct, dissect and correct. He only talks when it really matters, when he has something to say that he needs them to listen to.
He thinks about these moments as six bullets he has loaded for the whole season - six opportunities to fire a shot that will make his presence known and stop his team in their tracks so he can impart some wisdom he wants them to take seriously.
This “less is more” approach to executive communications is so smart, and I can’t stop thinking about how effectively it could have been wielded against COVID, rather than the scattershot, machine fire briefings we’ve been riddled with so far.
Steal This Approach
If you want to understand me a little bit, know that I was very into Abbie Hoffman when I was younger. If you don’t know who that is, watch the Trial of the Chicago Seven on Netflix. If you do know who that is, read this piece to remind yourself that Aaron Sorkin would not have gotten along with the Yippie leader he fictionalizes in the film (which I also loved).
Hoffman, like the actor who depicts him, Sasha Baron Cohen, was wicked smart, but understood how to deploy spectacle, sarcasm and satire to expose underlying truth and the inexcusable hypocrisy of the systems he opposed. With so much earnest parsing of inexplicable horrors these days, I could use someone throwing a verbal Molotov Cocktail or two.
The Proximity Imperative is an interesting theory from an otherwise boring interview with new Accenture CEO Julie Sweet, who suggests that when the going gets tough, the tough get very focused on their client’s needs.
(K,P,t) is an equation by which MIT professor Patrick Wilson begins his legendary annual lecture “How to Speak.” K is for knowledge, P is for practice and the ‘very small” t is for the talent you have.
“Your success in life will be largely determined by your ability to speak, your ability to write, and the quality of your ideas - in that order,” begins Wilson, who also thought it should be a court martial-able offence to send students out into the world without the ability to effectively communicate. I feel the same way, so here’s a link to the talk.
And finally, pour one out for James Randi, the McArthur Grant genius who used magic to disavow people of magic. In these times when everyone seemingly can be fooled, it’s nice to read about someone who understood how to use the same tricks to pull people back to the light.
“Using a singular combination of reason, showmanship, constitutional cantankerousness and a profound knowledge of the weapons in the modern magician’s arsenal, he traveled the country exposing seers who did not see and healers who did not heal” reads his obit.
He was also Canadian, and founded with the astronomer Carl Sagan and writer Isaac Asimov the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, of which I would like to be named the next CEO.