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Levick Daily. Thoughts. Perspectives. Insights.

Corporate & Reputation

Lessons from the Oldest CEO Succession Plan on Record

Gene Grabowski

By Gene Grabowski and Ryan Stanton
No matter what you think of the Catholic Church or Pope Benedict XVI’s recent resignation, it’s hard to deny the myriad business lessons layered within the papal succession process. No other leadership transition presents as many examples to emulate or missteps to avoid. History, legacy, and tradition may set the Vatican apart in some instances; but the challenges and opportunities it confronts when selecting a new pontiff are no less insightful to corporations, non-profits, and other organizations that must replace departing leaders.
Foremost among the examples to emulate is a succession plan with a clearly defined process. The vast majority of Church stakeholders know precisely what to expect and that level of familiarity breeds faith and confidence in the result. There are no procedural surprises or uncertainty.
The lesson: have a succession plan in place and be willing to share its strictures with the organization’s constituencies. When stakeholders trust the succession process, they are all the more likely to trust the successor.
Next, there is the Vatican’s understanding that leadership succession is an inherently communicative exercise. It speaks volumes about the future of an organization and its brand – and it does so when stakeholder attention and scrutiny reach an apex. They don’t come around often, but when they do, the Church leverages these opportunities to establish compelling narratives about what the world can expect from the new Papal regime.
The lesson: understand what the selection of a new leader needs to say about your organization and articulate that message far and wide. There is no better opportunity to communicate your vision and values to the marketplace.
Leading the list of missteps to avoid is the secrecy with which the College of Cardinals elects a new Pope. Here, the Vatican enjoys such levels of reverence and trust among the faithful that a closed-door process is tolerated. In the age of transparency, few other institutions enjoy the same privilege. Whether the organization in question is a manufacturer of brand name products, a Wall Street bank, or a tech start-up, stakeholders will want to know all factors influencing the succession.
The lesson: be prepared to discuss every element of the selection process – from the candidates’ qualifications to how compensation decisions were reached. Especially for publicly traded companies, an open process cements the perception that there is nothing to hide – and that the organization is fully confident that it made the best possible choice.
Finally, there is the question of stakeholder engagement. Here again, the Vatican falls short of best practices as there seems to be little to no input from anyone outside the College of Cardinals. And here again, tradition provides the Church some modicum of cover. What every other organization needs to understand is that stakeholder engagement breeds the perception that succession decisions were made collectively; rather than handed down from those on high.
The lesson: bring as many stakeholders as possible into the fold. When all key parties are involved in the process; they not only share a sense of ownership in the decision; they have a real stake in seeing the successor succeed.
All too often, organizations fail to adequately plan for succession at the top. With the oldest succession plan in recorded history now going into effect, now is the time to ensure that they don’t get caught flat-footed with the inevitable occurs.
After all, nothing lasts forever – not even a papal tenure.
Gene Grabowski is an Executive Vice President at LEVICK and a contributing author to LEVICK Daily.
Ryan Stanton is a Director at LEVICK and a contributing author to LEVICK Daily.

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