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Coaching a chief executive's successor

'Congratulations, Khun Tana, I just heard your company's announcement," I say.

"Thank you, Coach Kriengsak," says Tana, a chief operating officer who has just been named as the next chief executive of his company. The board has ensured a smooth succession by giving him one year to prepare for his new responsibilities.

"Khun Tana, how will you prepare yourself?" I ask.

"I plan to do many things," he tells me. "But already I'm surprised by the number of things I'll need to know."

The realisation struck him, he tells me, after he read Preparing CEOs for Success: What I Wish I Knew by Leslie W. Braksick and James S. Hillgren.

The book was sponsored by chief executive Bill Johnson of H.J. Heinz Co in support of his own succession planning and development efforts.

The authors interviewed 27 heads of global companies from 2008-09.

"What was so interesting about this book?" I ask.

"Coach, the authors consolidated eight common themes from the interviews — things CEOs said they were not prepared for and things the CEOs wished they had known before moving in to the role." The eight themes were:

1. Tenacity, patience and judgement required for decision-making.

2. Unique challenges posed by the leadership team you inherit.

3. Prioritisation takes on a whole new meaning.

4. Developing a trusting relationship with your board is essential.

5. Transitioning well matters.

6. Unending governance challenges.

7. Public scrutiny: no private life.

8. The isolation of the job.

"Coach, I want to discuss these top two topics with you today."

"That's great. How do you want to do it?"

"Coach, let's go one by one. On the first topic, one CEO was quoted as saying: 'I was least prepared for making a few decisions with big consequences.' I think this will bother me, because coming from an operational background I've become used to making several decisions each day."

"What will be the potential problems if you have only a few key decisions to make?"

"Coach, I think I'll interfere with my subordinates' decisions too much — particularly the operational decisions that I'm used to making."

"How will you prevent that?"

"I think I have to deliberately allot my time more to long-term planning — because that's my role. I have to accept the fact that operational decisions are the responsibility of the other executives and not the CEO."

"I agree. So let's move on to No.2: Unique challenges posed by the leadership team you inherit."

"I was struck by a quotation in the book from a veteran CEO that is similar to my scenario: 'Overnight I found myself managing peers, all of whom stayed. They all held on at first. I was much younger than all of the people I managed. I wish I had coaching on how to manage former peers. Suddenly, all relationships changed once I received the promotion to the CEO position.' "

"Khun Tana, what's your concern in this regard?"

"Coach, how to I manage my older peers who will become my subordinates?"

"How many of them are older than you?"

"Six out of 10 of my future subordinates are older than me."

"How much do they trust you now?"

"How do I know?"

"Usually, people trust you based on two perceptions — how much they perceive your capability and how much they perceive that you care about them."

"Coach, I think five out of the six place high trust in me. They perceive me as capable and as someone who cares for them. But there is one person who expected to be promoted and he concerns me."


"Because he's hurt that I passed him. He thinks that he's more capable and experienced than I am."

"Khun Tana, what's your plan for dealing with him?"

"Coach, I think he and I need to have a discussion about norm-setting — how we'll work together in the future. I'm considering the possible approaches: dealing with him directly; asking my boss to organise a meeting; or avoiding it until I'm actually in charge.

"I learned from the book that if I wait until I'm in charge, it's probably going to do more damage than dealing with it earlier. Hence, the third option is a no-go for me."

"Khun Tana, between the first two options, which one is better?"

"Considering our culture here, I want to ask my boss to set up this norm-setting meeting between two of us."

"What could go wrong?"

"Coach, the risk is my boss might perceive I'm not strong enough to lead the senior subordinates."

"How do you prevent that misperception?"

"I think I need to prepare my script before meeting with my boss. My boss is a sensible person. If he sees the logic behind my proposal, usually he'll agree."

"When will you plan to prepare?"

"Right after this meeting. Once I finish the first draft, let me email it to you, then you can give me your feedback over the phone. Would you mind if I called you tomorrow morning?"

"That would be fine. Let's stop here for now."

Kriengsak Niratpattanasai provides executive coaching in leadership and diversity management under TheCoach brand. He can be reached at Daily inspirational quotations can be found at Previous articles are archived at