Three Phases of the CEO Succession Timeline

Executive successions vary widely in their circumstances, but they share a common driver of success: readiness. This includes the executive’s readiness and that of the organization.

Succession Timeline

Timing and readiness are different but related things. Timing has to do with the sequencing of events, processes, or changes. Readiness is about the willingness to make the changes and the level of preparation necessary to successfully navigate the change process. For leadership succession, readiness first involves the willingness of the executive to initiate the succession process – to recognize that it’s time to move on and to take charge of his/her own exit. Readiness also involves how prepared the organization and the executive are to move through the succession. Finally, in the case of a retiring executive, readiness involves his/her willingness to let go and step into the next chapter of life – to move on and not have one foot in and one foot out of the organization. What drives readiness is preparation.

The Succession Timeline

Depending on the departure circumstances, the entire CEO succession process takes at least a year, but several years is more typical in retirement situations.

The process begins with the incumbent executive’s decision to leave (or in some unfortunate circumstances, the board’s decision to force a leadership change) and doesn’t conclude until the successor has settled into the role.

The overarching goal of succession preparation is to ensure the sustainability of the organization’s mission work.

Even in the case of short notice, or abrupt departures, the process involves 4-6 months to search for, select, and hire a successor, and a minimum of 90 to 100 days for the successor to get over the initial hump of the settling-in process. Altogether, it takes nearly a year, but usually more. In retirement situations, the process often spans several years.

Figure 1 – The Succession Timeline

Succession Timeline

Figure 1 outlines a succession timeline and overlays three preparation and action stages:

The Sustaining Phase is any time up to about a year before the transition and handoff to the successor. The action during this phase is to ensure the organization is as sustainable as possible and potential successors have been prepared (if practical). Also, that the board has taken a deep look at the organization’s future and the implications for strategy, direction and leadership needs. This is especially important if the departing CEO is a founder, long-tenured or transformational executive.

The Transitioning Phase is the 6 to 12 months before the leadership handoff. The prep work in this phase involves two long tracks: first, the search, selection, and hiring of the successor. Second, the preparation of the organization to work effectively with the new executive. These transition preparations should include ensuring that the organization is as stable as possible – financially, politically and emotionally – before the successor steps into the role. And, preparing for how the leadership handoff will occur and an outline of the onboarding plan for the new executive.

The Post-Hire Taking-Charge Phase lasts at least 6 months after the handoff, but a year is more typical. During this period the successor is settling into the role and taking charge of the organization. Often the successor must go through one complete annual budget cycle to fully understand the nooks and crannies of the role. The actions during this phase should ensure that the new executive is properly onboarded. But taking charge is a two-way street that involves the board and senior management team adjusting to the new leader’s style and outlook.

In succession prep, more time gives you more options.

Regardless of the circumstances, the succession preparation and planning work should begin as early as possible. More time gives you more options.

Succession prep is not solely linked to CEO retirement. If you’re a CEO who’s in the early stage of your career, and your future transition out of the role is more likely to involve a change of jobs than a retirement, there are several things that you can do to ensure organizational readiness for whenever that transition occurs: (1) Ensure that your strategic planning process embraces the concepts of organizational sustainability. (More on that in a future post.) (2) Work with the board to develop a board-adopted succession policy for the CEO position. (3) Ensure that there is an up-to-date backup plan for your position. (4) Finally, ensure that the board periodically reviews and updates the succession policy and backup plan. (For more on these policies and plans, see this free guide.)

Obviously, the sustainability planning work will ensure that your organization is not just stable but as sustainable as possible when you hand it off to your successor. The succession policy will build the transition competency of the board, having them think through how they would manage the transition under emergency circumstances and ultimately, when you decide to leave — whether that’s through retirement or a job change. The backup plan will ensure someone is ready to step in for the CEO under emergency circumstances (a blindingly good idea), and having the board review it periodically will help them deepen their understanding of the CEO position – preparing them to do a better job when they are confronted with searching for and selecting your successor.

For executive successions that involve a retirement, I suggest beginning the planning work at least a year, if not two to three years, ahead of the departure date. An early start is particularly important if you’re a founder, have had a long tenure, or if you’ve been a transformational leader. These high-impact and long-tenured leaders are often hard to follow. Their successors can face serious struggles without some thoughtful preparation of the organization, realignment of the CEO role, and careful management of the handoff and onboarding process.

Starting early doesn’t necessarily mean announcing early.

A lot of the planning and preparation work can take place in what I call stealth mode, without disclosing your departure date or plans. While the planning work may begin several years prior to your departure, the public announcement is typically made much later, at a natural point (usually between 6-12 months) before the departure date, often concurrent with the announcement of the search for the successor.

Finally, starting early also allows time to prepare potential internal successors if that’s practical for your organization.

Succession Outcomes

In any planning process, it’s always a good idea to have the end in mind. As proposed earlier, the overarching goal of executive succession preparation is to ensure the sustainability of the organization’s mission work. With that goal in mind, here are some outcome examples to help frame your journey through the phases:

  • For your organization: a successor has been hired who fits the current and future leadership needs of the organization. She’s fully on board, and she and the organization are flourishing.
  • For you: having prepared my organization for the transition process, I feel a sense of closure and completion. I’m entering my next chapter of life feeling prepared and excited about the future.

Let’s break those outcomes down so we can see how actions taken during the three phases drive toward them.

  • Fits the current and future leadership needs: the board has taken the time to think critically about the future direction of the organization and its leadership needs. They translated that knowledge into a job profile that provided the foundation for a robust search and selection process.
  • Fully on board: you, your board, and your staff have taken the time to develop an onboarding and orientation plan for your successor. There was also a thoughtful process to introduce the new leader within the organization and in the community.
  • She and the organization are flourishing: you and your board invested energy in ensuring the organization’s sustainability. You’ve strengthened the leadership platform that she’s stepping onto, minimizing the “catch-up work” she might otherwise face. She can focus her energies on leading the organization rather than becoming distracted by what might seem like firefighting.
  • Prepared my organization: one of your key jobs as a leader in transition will be to help prepare your organization. While the board plays the central role in the search/selection of your successor and in managing the transition, they’ll need your guidance.
  • Closure and completion: coming to closure is vital to leaving gracefully and enthusiastically stepping into your next stage of life. As the succession unfolds, you need to accept that your role will necessarily shift to that of a leader in transition. Acclimating yourself to that changing role and managing emotions (yours and those around you) are all part of the leave-taking process.
  • Prepared and excited: one of the other jobs of a leader in transition is to prepare yourself for life after your current leadership role.

In future posts we will dig deeper into the actions taken during each of the three phases that will support these outcomes. In the meantime, feel free to send your questions by clicking here.