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5.4 CEO Selection: Common Board Mistakes

Many of the succession failures can be traced to a few common mistakes, all of which are exacerbated by a board’s lack of preparedness.This section is based on Lucier et al. (2006) and Charan (2005, February).

The first occurs when emotion wins over reason. There have been several instances in which boards of high-profile public companies over-reacted when challenged with the appointment of a new CEO. One way this can occur is when a board, under strong media pressure and financial analyst scrutiny, feels it needs to act quickly and ends up choosing a well-known “star” rather than deliberately doing homework and carefully defining the specific traits, competencies, and experiences appropriate to the position.

A critical lack of knowledge of what works and, equally important, what does not, is a second factor. A board facing the departure of a CEO has a number of options, each with advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately, three of the most popular CEO replacement recipes do not seem to work well in practice. The first is selecting a prior CEO, someone with experience as the head of another large public company. Prior CEOs appear to bring important advantages. Many of them have a track record of creating shareholder value and already know how to work effectively with a board of directors, communicate with investors and security analysts, and develop and implement strategy. There is compelling evidence, however, that prior CEOs perform no better and sometimes worse than new, previously untested CEOs. This suggests that prior CEO experience may not be as valuable as experience in the company, in the industry, or with the types of challenges the company faces. It also points to the need for candidates to have a high level of energy to take on a major new challenge.

The most popular CEO replacement strategy is poaching a currently successful CEO from another large corporation. This strategy also reflects the belief that executive leadership is a generic skill set, not specific to either the industry or company. The current evidence regarding the efficacy of this strategy is thin because only a few of these CEOs have completed their career. If, however, the generally subpar results associated with hiring prior CEOs hold true for active CEOs hired from other companies, poaching may also be a losing proposition.

Both the prior CEO and poaching strategies are based on the idea that bringing in an outsider is better than choosing someone from inside. While there are times when it makes sense to recruit an outsider, for example, when the organization needs to be shaken up, an outside search should not be the only option. Although some outsiders come into a company, rally the troops, and create a following, others are immediately overwhelmed by what they need to learn. Rather than being highly visible and engaged leaders, they lock themselves in their offices with a few key executives and volumes of data. And because they do not spend enough time with key customers, employees, and other significant stakeholders, they risk being viewed as outsiders. All other things being equal, inside candidates, at least, are familiar with the culture and the business, a trait that gives them a leg up on outside candidates. Unfortunately, when inside candidates are automatically ignored, outstanding executives and future leaders one or two layers down in the organization may leave the organization, imperiling succession down the road.

The third common replacement strategy—making the chief executive chairman of the board while promoting a second individual, from inside or outside, to the CEO position—is another example of a seemingly good idea that can be disastrous in practice. This apprentice modelA model of making a corporation’s chief executive officer the chairman of the board while promoting a second individual, from inside or outside the company, to the position of CEO. covers more than one third of all CEO departures in 2005. In theory, the apprentice model sounds great: not only is it consistent with best practice because it separates the roles of chairman and CEO, but it also keeps the skills and experience of the former CEO available and allows for mentoring the new CEO.

The practical evidence is more sobering. The 2005 Booz Allen Hamilton study compared three governance models: the combined chairman–CEO; distinct roles, with someone other than the previous CEO serving as chairman; and the chairmanship held by the former CEO. The results were unequivocal: the best performing companies were those in which the roles were split and the chairman was a true outsider, not the former CEO. The study attributes the apparent failure of the apprentice model to the inevitable ineffective division of responsibility and authority that it promotes. As the company’s former CEO, the new chairman for many years set the direction for the company, controlled promotions and compensation, and defined the company’s culture to both employees and external stakeholders. In his or her new position, he or she is likely to be approached by anyone who is unsettled by the successor’s strategy or actions. In more extreme cases, if the former CEO is unhappy with either the direction of the company or its performance, he or she can get the apprentice fired and take back the CEO title.

There are other shortcomings to this model. Having the former CEO around to offer guidance creates the impression that the new CEO needs more training and is not yet really qualified to do the job, undermining his or her authority. And letting the former CEO manage the board—a board whose members know or appointed the former CEO or worse, were made board members themselves by that CEO—also hampers the new chief executive’s ability to develop a good relationship with the board and gain support for his management agenda.

It should also be noted that the apprentice model is inconsistent with the new regulatory climate and the rise of shareholder activismActivism on the part of shareholders that encourages corporate changes or even turnaround in social and environmental policies.. Sarbanes-Oxley stipulates that a majority of board members must be independent, reducing the number of insider slots, and that nominating committees consist entirely of outsiders. At the same time, shareholder activists strongly favor a model in which the chairman is an independent outsider.

A final common mistake in choosing a CEO is an over-reliance on executive recruiters. No executive recruiter can understand a company’s challenges as well as the current CEO or the board. In the absence of an effective succession-planning process and a carefully articulated list of desirable qualifications, however, recruiters may be forced to substitute their own, more generic list of desirable CEO attributes. In the absence of specific directions, executive recruiters also tend to gravitate to the prior CEO and poaching strategies for the reasons described above.