February 19, 2007
The Master's Program
The Point of View - A Weekly Commentary by Bob Shank


Dear Marketplace Friend, 

    Presidents Day. Happy holiday. Really? What's the appropriate greeting on a day like this one?
    Not easy to tell, actually. The day was created as a compromise, a few decades ago, when American workplace sensibilities morphed two notable birthdays into one. In the "old days" (read: when I was a kid), Lincoln and Washington both warranted their own birthday celebrations. Unfortunately, they were born within two weeks of one another, though decades apart. Result: a calendar compromise. Presidents Day.
    A day celebrating presidents is a good idea. On the surface, it would seem that George and Abraham are the exclusive targets of the fanfare, but in this age of CEO homage, it wouldn't be a stretch to see living corporate chiefs grab some of the attention from the dead politicos. Would it help if we changed it from "Presidents Day" to "CEOs Day?"
    Leadership is a peculiar task. One way to be a winner - both during and after one's service - is to be the first. First leaders are Founders, and Founders can - seemingly - do no (or, at least little) wrong. Reason? Among other obvious answers is the silence of the "we've never done it that way before" lobby. If it's never been done before, there is no previous protocol to violate. Founders make it up as they go along... and even if they fail, they're still the Founder.
    Lacking Founder status, you need to lead through an inflection point to be remembered well. Presidents who win a war (no matter who "started it") have a shot, as do CEOs who take a company through a significant acquisition, or a near-death Chapter 11 experience and come out the other end profitable. Just being profitable - or, stable, in a declining economic era - won't create legends that outlast you. Pick a fight - or, inherit one - and score the winning touchdown; your portrait will hang in the boardroom until they next redecorate...
    But those tips don't help most top-tier tribal leaders. Every country - or, company - has only one Founder, and the better job they do, the more successors they're likely to have. Most of those inheritors of the senior scepter won't have a war to highlight their hierarchy; "average" becomes high praise for most of the in-betweeners. The worst assignment? Follow a Founder - or, winner - with your regime. What to do?
    James M. Citrin is a senior director at Spencer Stuart - an executive search firm - and author of You're in Charge - Now What? Citrin says that successful succession boils down to four key guidelines:

    1. Be your own person. Don't try to be someone you are not. The temptation to be a knockoff of the last, loved leader is an invitation to interim.
    2. It's not about you. No one cares about you; they care about the company... and themselves. Did we mention that it's not about you? For the first two years (if you last that long), purge the pronoun "I" from your proclamations. We is the operative subject... unless you make a mistake. Then, "I" is the only antidote. Mea Culpa is your mantra...
    3. Establish three powerful themes. That, from the guy who has four guidelines! No kidding, though. Have a stump-speech that captures your first-100 days agenda, and share it incessantly.
    4. Never speak ill of your predecessor. You may find some secrets locked in the drawers of the president's desk... but, keep them to yourself. Say nice things... or, say nothing.

    There's a unique, key position that carries high risks when it passes from one to another. It's the Boss of Me throne, occupied by every person who reaches mature independence. The transition that holds great risk is the hand-off to the only viable successor. Some see it as a "I'm allowing you to take over" move; truth is, it's really a restoration of the position deserved by the Founder, whose titles include "Creator," "Savior," "King of Kings," and "Lord, God Almighty." President? CEO? Call him what you will; his formal name is just The Lord Jesus Christ.
    One day for Presidents is appropriate. How about every day... for Jesus?

 

Bob Shank


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