Succession Success: 5 tips to fill openings of aging execs

Every industry experiences an ebb and flow with regard to leaders retiring and leaving the seat they’ve kept warm for decades. This is true for the most senior- and C-level executives, regardless of industry, and many are just now starting to discuss a succession plan. 

This sentiment had been brewing a bit prior to 2020, but the challenges, past and present, posed by the pandemic has heightened the weariness that the C-suite professional may have, says Michelle J. Robertson, founder and president of MJR Resources, which specializes in accounting and finance and general business operations.

“There are definitely more open conversations about what’s next for them. Or when it’s time to move on,” says Robertson, a 30-year recruiting veteran.

And this means more executive roles up for grabs by younger leaders who desire to keep that CEO chair from getting cold.

“I’m seeing this earlier and earlier, and hearing younger groups talk about getting to that top level,” Robertson says. “But, there are a number of steps and places one needs to serve and experience before stepping into that.”

If you’re serious about entering that C-suite air, these suggestions will help you elevate along that path.

Clarity for what it takes
If you’re jockeying to be part of a succession plan as a senior director, vice president or C-level in operations, finance or technology, it’s key for the departing executive to be very clear about what the job entails. This means identifying a definition of what’s needed to even be considered a viable candidate. Having a proven track record of challenges, successes, and proven results in previous roles is helpful as are soft skills and other intangibles that can’t necessarily be stated on a resume. “A young professional eyeing that next senior leadership role needs to be really clear about what is needed to be successful in that role,” Robertson says.

Willingness to be a life-long learner
Regardless of the depth and breadth of your supervisory experience, developing your management style, continuing to learn and hone your knowledge and skills set should be ongoing. After identifying your skills and areas that need work, Robertson recommends seeking out some of the great books on the topic, organizations that have a formal executive development program and even coaching as ways to help you accomplish this.

Seek out mentorship
In addition to helping you develop strong leadership skills, a mentor with whom you have a solid relationship will help you become an integral part of a succession plan and teach you the needed skills that may fall through the cracks. For example, Robertson says, this could mean holding you accountable on soft and hard skills, whether you and your goals align with the company’s and having honest yet uncomfortable conversations. “You hope there’s a safe space to share that with a supervisor or right C-suite member,” Robertson says. “It would be an easier conversation if they’re the ones who can say, ‘You’re not ready,’ or ‘Absolutely, I see you in this role in X months or X years.”

Shore up your communication skills
Becoming an excellent communicator also means employing great listening and information delivery skills while expressing genuine interest and awareness of your audience, Robertson explains. If you aren’t quite confident in your abilities here, there are quality programs to assist you. “The more we practice, the more experience we have and the better we get,” she says. “It does take intentionality.”

Evaluate your public image
Many at the top are public figures so be very savvy about your information – personal and professional – that’s out there. Not only do all of your online business profiles need to be current and well-kept, but this is the time to curate or clean up your social media pages, whether it’s a party photo from your grad school days, a political opinion you posted on X or a silly dance video on TikTok. Robertson recommends taking a thorough look at your personal brand: What you’re portraying, your insights and expertise and making sure you’re conveying a consistent image that is truly you. “This is the next level. You’re the face of the company. You’re representing so much more,” Robertson says.

Bottom line
If you are aiming to level-up and become part of the succession plan, it’s not too early to start doing the prep work. Whether it’s gaining more formal education, seeking out trusted mentors who are willing to be honest about your skills and experience or making the effort to shore up your communication acumen, relationships – new connections and existing ones alike – are key to helping you get there.

Georgann Yara is a journalist based in Phoenix. Find her on X @georgannyara and Threads @georganny.

Photo by The Coach Space / Pexels

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