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How to Groom a Successor

How to Groom a Successor

The plan is based on the need for continuity; it's not there to generate competition between candidates. Not that competition is bad. Competition should be based on one's own performance, which includes demonstrating teamwork and team leadership. It shouldn't be based on out-performing a specific person.

Choosing a successor is not about cloning yourself. It's about identifying the business values that are important to you and picking someone who shares them so that there can be continuity for both your customers and your employees.

Self-interest, however, does play a part. It reflects poorly on you if things fall apart after he leaves. Having a strong successor is a basic tenet of good leadership. The more senior you get in the corporate world, and the more complex your company grows, the more you have to focus on having someone prepared to take your place.

FedEx has been trying to make choosing a successor an ordinary, not extraordinary, part of doing business. I announced that I would retire from FedEx in March 2000, but FedEx CEO Fred Smith and I had been talking for the past two or three years about who my successor would be. Ten years ago, when I became CIO, this process was not formally in place, but in recent years Fred has implemented a formal successor-identification process, with a list of three people for each executive-level job. Having a framework for discussing your successor prevents the conversation from becoming uncomfortable or personalised. The chosen people don't necessarily have to know that they are on a list of possible successors. The plan is based on the need for continuity; it's not there to generate competition between candidates. Not that competition is bad. I would rather have more than one person feel that he or she is qualified - and is, in fact, qualified - to be the next CIO than have a single person be qualified. But you don't want people to compete against each other. Competition should be based on one's own performance, which includes demonstrating teamwork and team leadership. It shouldn't be based on out-performing a specific person. That can lead to organisational dysfunction.

Was I concerned about someone wanting to take over the job before I was ready? Well, I never felt that I needed a food taster. (I felt that way with some of the users, but not with any of my possible successors.) I think an institutionalised succession process prevents ill feelings of that sort.

When Fred and I announced my retirement, effective at the end of 2000, we also announced that Rob Carter, then CTO, would be taking my place. I began deferring to him as quickly as possible because it would have been inappropriate for me to be making business judgements that would affect his ability to manage the department in the months and years ahead.

By June, Rob had taken over. I didn't feel like a lame duck - I was a lame duck. That was one of the reasons that I decided to leave at the end of August as opposed to waiting until the end of the year. Rob was an outstanding candidate who is performing in outstanding fashion. We still talk to each other; we see each other. The transition took less time than I thought it would. But, after all, I'd never retired before.

Now, at Commerce One, we haven't yet begun a formal succession planning process. I emphasise the word formal as CEO Mark Hoffman and I frequently discuss organisational issues with successor candidates. The depth of the management bench, particularly as it relates to senior officers, is a focus for us. In other words, the process is beginning to begin.

Dennis Jones, president of Commerce One in Pleasanton, Calif., was CIO of FedEx for 10 years.

Senior Writer Sarah D. Scalet can be reached at sscalet@cio.com.

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