Ra, Ra, Sis Boom bah!

Aug 16, 2004

Ask any expert and they will tell you that you should be doing succession planning at all levels in the organization. What is succession planning? It’s simply answering who is going to take over when you die, retire, are sick, or quit— and answering that question for every position in the firm. While succession planning is important for every critical role in the firm, some would argue it is most critical for the CEO position. I can think of a number of cases where the CEO’s successor was not clearly identified in advance of the need, and the firm went into a crisis when faced with the decision of who to put into the job. So who is next in line for the CEO job at your firm? That’s a question a lot of A/E/P and environmental firm principals and employees are asking right now. One place firms often look is to their COO (chief operating officer). Often, this person also carries a status title of “executive vice president.” I am a big, big fan of using the COO position as a staging area for the CEO job in an A/E/P or environmental firm. But there’s one problem with doing so— the COO is normally a role where you will ruffle some feathers. This is the person who runs the operations of the company and who makes the line unit managers (office managers, department heads, discipline leaders, studio heads, etc.) do their jobs. It’s not always pleasant and often involves moving work and people around the firm to make best use of the staff resources, as well as forcing occasional staff reductions. There’s a lot of confrontation and holding people’s feet to the fire. The problem with a personal history of ruffling feathers is that the CEO is often expected to do just the opposite. He (or she) is the head cheerleader for the firm. The CEO has to make people feel good. He has to keep people in the company, charging ahead, and doing their jobs, in spite of bad things that may be happening— things like a lack of raises, or a lack of equipment needed to do a job, or new competition that is driving down proposal hit rates. He has to be ever-optimistic and positive, and project a feeling that anything worth doing is possible to do. Can you see how difficult it is for the COO to become a CEO? First, in many of the multi-owner, democratic firm cultures that we have in this business, it would be hard for the COO to ever be named as CEO in the first place. Their peers are typically very harsh critics— and plenty of enemies could have been created along the way of the COO doing his job— that would make initial support for this person as CEO from the other principals and managers doubtful. Second, in the rare chance the COO does get the nod from the firm’s BOD to take over the reins of the firm, the bad blood created while in their former role could hamper their success in the new role. Lots of fences will need mending, and an internal, operational orientation will have to be redirected to business development and cheerleading. Yet, in spite of all of the above obstacles, I personally think many of the COOs I encounter in the A/E/P and environmental firms we visit would make fine CEOs. Most COOs come from the line organization, i.e., what the firm does for a living— as opposed to staff (support functions). Having a line worker background is very powerful when you want to have credibility with your clients and your workers. It’s kind of like being a coach who used to play ball. It’s just easier to identify with and lead your players into battle. Originally published 8/16/2004

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