Knowing When to Step Down – Dilemmas of Succession

Succession is one of those topics that gets very little coverage given it's significance. An interesting blog post in the New York Times (here) by Quentin Hardy draws attention to some of the pitfalls in not having a plan in place as it discusses high profile tech founders who outstay their welcome and ultimately damage their organisations.

Above all, this article raises some interesting questions about leadership and culture in the organisation. The article features former Dell CEO Kevin Rollins who was ousted and replaced by the computer giant's eponymous founder makes some valid arguments about some of the unintentional damage founder/CEOs can do by hanging on in the top job for too long. These include stifling the next generation of leaders within the organisation and the unique power and influence that visionary tech founders are able to exercise on their organisations.

Visionaries are fantastic, but their companies are often notoriously hard to run. Sometimes, these leaders cling to dated visions and stifle innovation. And sometimes, they simply won’t get out of the way. Promising executives with new ideas get fed up and leave.

The unfortunate dichotomy facing the boards of tech companies is that to achieve great success in the first place you need someone with the vision and single-minded determination to impose their will on the organisation. Over time this results in the founder personifying the organisation's culture and values. However, this approach is rarely compatible more a more mature business or shifts in the competitive landscape. The result is that over time the behaviours that make a founder and organisation successful in the first place get ingrained in the organisational culture so much that change or an awareness of what new circumstances require is very hard to achieve. When things start to go wrong it becomes very difficult to know what to do if the tools that have served you so well in the past no longer seem to work.

Arguably, succession is not given the attention it requires because it is intangible and complex. This is because it is not just about having a plan in place. Succession is much more than a process that can be mapped out in the boardroom. Particularly for tech companies who often experience astonishing growth in a short period of time where the founders wield undue influence, the harsh truth is that in many cases succession is inextricably tied in with a necessary cultural shift in the organisation. A rejection of those values that make you successful is never an easy option.




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