Almost Ready: How Leaders Move Up

The Idea in Brief

It's a popular approach to ensuring a smooth leadership transition: Hire a second-in-command who is designated as the next CEO. But the practice rarely works — of would-be CEO successors hired externally, 75% don't become chief executives or, if they do, don't last more than two years.

The fault lies largely with boards that neglect the succession process and incumbent chiefs who don't coach potential successors. But Ciampa says aspiring CEOs can surmount these obstacles by understanding and mastering the unique skills required for success at the top. Those skills — including understanding the current chief's leadership style and managing political nuances without appearing "political" — are very different from the ones that got them into the number-two spot.

Follow Ciampa's recommendations and you'll be far more likely get to the top, stay there, and excel.

The Idea in Practice

Here are guidelines for CEO designates seeking to make it to the corner office and succeed there:

Manage Your Boss

To build a strong working bond with the incumbent CEO:

  • Analyze what the CEO pays attention to and expects from senior people.
  • Adapt to his leadership and decision-making style: Does he ask questions to verify his conclusions or gain new input? Does he make decisions by talking with people one-on-one or in groups?
  • Search for clues indicating the best way to relate to him: How does he want to be kept informed? Which people influence him most?
  • Appreciate how difficult it is for him to hand over the reins.

Manage the Political Environment

To succeed politically without seeming political:

  • Grasp the hidden alliances and patterns of loyalty in your organization: Figure out who was most responsible for successes and failures, what happened to them, and how they formed influential groups. Understand who must be won over to your viewpoints.
  • Be willing to move your better people to other parts of the organization: They broaden their skills; the company gets talent where it's needed; and you seed the company with people who know you and can help you when you need it — by offering feedback or pointing out potential problems.
  • Find ways for your virtues to be touted by others, so you don't shine the spotlight of attention too brightly on yourself. And give credit to others contributing to successes.

Demonstrate Your Readiness to Become CEO

To show that you have the wisdom and maturity to move into the top spot:

  • Rather than jumping in to solve your people's problems, lay out what has to happen. Hold your team leaders accountable for finding solutions.
  • Resist any urge to get dragged into immediate details. Instead, continually look ahead three or four years with larger concerns in mind. For example, consider where your company's competitive edge may be threatened. Find out what the firm's major competitors are doing that leaders in your company haven't thought about yet. And test your people to see if they can step up to the next level.

Copyright 2007 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.