Charting a course for leaders

I recently read an article on the long drawn process that General Electric (GE), more specifically, Jack Welch put in place when he began the search for his successor.  

Six years, five months and two days to be exact and thousands of GE Board hours were spent on this entire effort.  

It may make business sense for a huge corporation such as GE, but does it make sense for Malaysian corporations and CEO’s to spend waking hours worrying about who would succeed them next? 

The process GE put in place defied all the basic tenets of succession planning.  

They never named a chief operating officer or heir apparent.  

They never looked at an outsider. They formed no strategic vision of the next ten years nor used any common template for measuring the candidates.  

What they did was spend an extraordinary amount of time getting to know the contenders. 

Looking around companies within corporate Malaysia, I wonder if we pay enough attention to the issue of succession. It is an often spoken about subject, however, the execution varies.  

Few companies in Malaysia seem to be able to groom from within and hence the natural tendency will be to look for someone from the outside.  

However, despite the obvious need for a succession plan, many companies neglect this task.  

Remarkably, 24 percent of Fortune 500 companies don't consider succession planning a top priority.  

Let’s look at what would happen if there wasn’t a process in place to groom potential CEOs. 

Pitfalls to Watch 

Firstly, organisations risk allowing the current CEO, who may feel somewhat threatened, to drive off any promising candidates.  

Starting early (six years for GE) would enable board members to “get-to-know” the candidates better. More importantly the board would be able to test the candidate’s skills over a period of time and meet with them for open-ended discussions.  

Building a succession culture will help organisations spot future stars early in their careers. Without this, companies risk placing individuals in senior positions based on loyalty and tenure and what is ultimately perceived to be a “safe bet” for the organisation.  

Organisations also risk using standard templates to look for the right candidates.  

The danger here is that companies will end up describing the ideal candidate in language that tends to be very generic (ie: action-orientated, bias for action etc), hence not being able to truly challenge the thinking of potential candidates who come through the door.  

It would be good to figure out what is specifically required of the candidate and not someone who head-hunters present as an ideal “leader”. 

Finally, boards might even succumb to the trend that outsiders are “in”. Whilst there is tremendous value in introducing new blood into the organisation, the risk involved is also greater. It may drive home the message that in-house talents are undervalued and beholden to the status quo. Where it makes sense, hire from the outside but never overlook the possibilities from within. 

If indeed, there is growing concern about succession, what then, should current leaders do about cultivating the next generation of leaders–and the one after that?  

Looking back at my own experiences in Accenture, several common factors prevail across the years when I was given the opportunity to observe, make mistakes and hone in my own leadership capabilities. There are a number of key areas to consider when companies look at grooming their next generation of leaders. 

Creating A Culture of Succession 

Companies will need to pay attention to creating an environment where leaders can be tested and offered sufficient opportunities to rise to the challenge. There are several ways that this can be accomplished. 

Firstly, it is important to create a fertile ground where the culture of succession and grooming the next generation of leaders exist. In order to achieve this, management will need to identify the potential stars within the organisation.  

By this, I do not mean just the layer on top but potential stars that exist throughout the various levels in the organisation. Then, create more leadership opportunities through project-based work for these bright stars to shine and try their hands at leading. 

Secondly focus on mentoring as mentors play a defining role in the success of a leader. I know of a number of very senior partners in Accenture who have had a dramatic influence over my career over the years.  

To be effective, mentoring must be a very personal experience. Mentors need to convey insights clearly, simply, and in their own voice. Not in the way they imagine a leadership development curriculum would sound. More importantly the most effective mentors do not portray themselves as flawless, no matter how accomplished. In fact, many are willing to reveal some of their own weaknesses, fears and uncertainties.  

For me, my best mentors were those who were effective storytellers. Those who realise that vital knowledge is not necessarily found in databases but in their own war stories.  

How do companies even begin to orchestrate such a relationship? I believe the role of the organisation in this area is to facilitate an environment where relationships such as these are lauded and duly recognised. Only then can the best guide and storytellers thrive. 

Thirdly, create an environment where failure is tolerated, hence enabling innovation to thrive. The country needs the next-generation of leaders to take us to a level beyond, and this can only happen if those being groomed are encouraged to take intelligent risk.  

Nurturing failure-tolerant leaders can result in a tremendous amount of value because its leaders will help increase their organisation’s intellectual capital and creativity of its workforce.  

Finding the right individual to lead an organisation cannot be left to chance.  

If we do not put in place a culture that is committed to continually grooming the next generation of leaders, we take a huge risk in eventually leaving a leadership vacuum that cannot be filled overnight without deliberate intervention.  

Stewardship: Your Choice 

As the tenure of the average CEO grows shorter, it might be tempting to suggest that CEOs concentrate exclusively on the present and do little about next-generation leaders and the generation after that.  

However, when successful senior executives look back at the defining experiences in their careers it will be abundantly clear that their future was not entirely a product of chance.  

In each and every instance there were people who intervened to shape or redirect the evolution of every leader.  

As leaders we need to ensure that we leave the organisation in the hands of those who will help guarantee that it is in a better shape then when we first came into it. That choice is yours to make. 


l Ching Yew Chye is Accenture’s Managing Partner for the South East Client Group (comprising South East Asia, India and Australia). He directs the firm’s client service operations across all the industries. 

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