In 1978 many observers considered Ford Motor president Lee Iacocca the obvious candidate for the CEO position that Henry Ford II would shortly vacate. Iacocca, of course, not only didnâ€™t get the position but was fired. In explaining why he cut Iacocca loose, Ford famously remarked, â€œSometimes you just donâ€™t like somebody.â€
In my work Iâ€™ve seen this dynamic time and time again. If the current CEO doesnâ€™t like you or doesnâ€™t want you to get the job, you probably wonâ€™t get it.
Itâ€™s critical for CEO candidates to maintain the trust and full support of the current CEO. If you canâ€™t do this, perhaps you should look for another job. This may seem simple and obvious, but Iâ€™ve seen several executives derail their careers by making avoidable blunders with their CEOs. One that I witnessed involved a series of e-mails between a potential CEO and a friend inside the company. The first e-mail to the friend provided an elaborate description of â€œwhy the current ...view middle of the document...
â€ As heir, you have to strike a delicate balance between projecting your readiness to be CEO and conveying your loyalty and support for the current regime. There is a fine line between an assertive leader and a cocky candidate.
A CEO candidate also can do everything right but not get the job because the CEO never intended to promote him or her in the first place. I saw this happen when I was asked to coach one CFO for the top job. The CEO had told the CFO that he would become the new chief executive if he improved his interpersonal skills. The CFO was assured that all his technical and functional skillsâ€”including those in marketingâ€”were fine. I coached the CFO for a year, and at the end a report from 15 of his colleagues documented a dramatic improvement in his social skills. The CEO nonetheless denied his promotion because, he said, the CFO â€œlacked the marketing skills needed to do the jobâ€â€”the very same marketing skills that the CEO told him he possessed a year earlier.
What went wrong? It turned out that the CEO didnâ€™t particularly like the CFO, needed him in his current position, and had used the carrot of the promotionâ€”and the coaching requirementâ€”to keep him in the corporation. Of course, when the CFO actually did improve his interpersonal skills, the CEO had to devise another reason to block his advancement.
Sometimes the CEO truly intends to promote the successor but, when push comes to shove, just canâ€™t let go and leave the job. Walking away from the money, status, influence, and fame of the top position can be tough. Not only are CEOs often reluctant to give up the perks of the job, but they may be anxious about potentially losing their identity and facing a less exciting future. Whatâ€™s more, the heirâ€™s performance can be seen as a reflection on the retiring CEO. If the successor fails, the former CEO will have to deal with the guilt of having recommended a poor replacement and the pain of the companyâ€™s declining stock value. If the heir succeeds and improves the firmâ€™s performance, the CEO will have to confront embarrassing comments like â€œThe company has really done well since you retired.â€ The former CEO can come off as a loser either way!