Your Next CEO is Already Here: Internal Successors

leadership transition Mar 10, 2022

- By Sophie Pinkoski 

After two years of delaying transitions to accommodate the ongoing pandemic crisis, outgoing leaders are finally taking the leap and moving on. Executive outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray, & Christmas reported the number of departing CEO rose 16% by the end of 2021. The firm saw their second highest month on record in October 2021, with 142 CEOs to leave, followed by 106 capping off the year in December 2021.  With so many CEOs leaving, it’s up to boards to assess the type of leader their organization needs for the next chapter of their history.  

Given continued uncertainty, organizations may look more at internal candidates when carefully considering who is best to become the next CEO. More and more often lately, organizations are hiring internally to minimize disruption. They are turning to their own leaders with proven track records managing emergency situations with innovation and resilience. By selecting someone from within the organization, the leadership team and board can confidently understand the skills they are elevating to the CEO seat. 

Here are some things to keep in mind when identifying your next CEO: 

What kind of leader does your organization need? – When the pandemic began, CEOs were thrust into a precarious situation with no prior training to handle a crisis of this magnitude. Now that they’re preparing to leave their position, what kind of person is needed to lead you through future situations? How would they differ from your outgoing CEO? Evaluate how your current CEO managed as a crisis leader and identify the gaps your board needs to fill for both crisis and stable times. A pattern has been emerging for the ideal leader organizations have been seeking lately: someone innovative and empathetic with a strong tolerance for ambiguity and work intensity. 

Identify short and long-term replacement options – Your interim and long-term candidates will likely be evaluated by vastly different criteria from one another, depending on what they would be expected to do. An interim leader should be prepared to handle immediate situations and maintain momentum, whereas a long-term candidate may require more strategic planning and innovation experience for the long run. When succession planning, be aware that you may be specifying two different roles. 

Succession plan for more than just your CEO – Your CEO may not be the only person preparing for eminent departure in your organization. As people reassess their priorities, workers at every level of the workplace hierarchy are leaving for greener pastures. Follow your organization’s leadership pipeline through the C-Suite onward.  Who is likely to leave and who could be prepared to take on larger leadership roles in the future? Who holds influence over operations or strategic planning?  Some members of your team may even be ready and eager to take on more responsibilities. Give them options for professional development, especially mentorship and coaching opportunities. 

Support your existing talent – Pay close attention to who amongst your team has been stepping up to the daunting task of leading through the pandemic. These leaders may be emerging from unexpected places in your organization. Be open about letting your team know there is room for upward mobility and give them the support they need to get them there. 

The brave new world of leadership transition in a pandemic looks different from what we’re used to. Boards value candidates who are familiar with their organization’s unique challenges more than ever right now. Supporting professional development from within to prepare internal candidates to take on leadership roles will give your organization plenty of options and keep you two steps ahead with your succession plans. 


Further Reading: 

CEO Selection in a Covid-19 World, AHA Trustee Services 

CEO Succession and the COVID-19 Pandemic, Corporate Board Member 

Leading During a Pandemic: The New CEO Job Search, now Associations 

Succession Planning in Your Post- Pandemic Talent Management Framework, Forbes 

Succession Planning in Post-COVID World, The intersect Group 

Getting Succession Planning Right During a Pandemic, Hunt Scanlon Media 

CEO Hiring to Have More Holistic Approach, More Space for Women Candidates, Bloomberg 

Covid-19: Is Your Board Hitting the Brakes on CEO Transition?, Spencer Stuart 

CEOs are Joining the ‘Great Resignation’, Trading Fatigue for Family Time, NBC News 



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