When your CEO doesn’t quite leave

Jeff Bezos’ decision to chair Amazon board presents challenges for incoming CEO

When your CEO doesn’t quite leave

With the recent announcement that Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos will step down to become executive chairman, what can other organizations learn from this example?

“It can be difficult — especially when you have somebody as high profile as Jeff Bezos — to take on the role. What ends up happening is in everybody’s hearts and minds, he is still there and that makes it very hard for a new CEO to make their name in the world,” says Andrea Plotnick, senior vice-president of board and executive solutions at leadership development consultants LHH in Toronto. “There often is a tendency to defer back to the original CEO as the decision-maker.”

But this type of arrangement can serve as positive news for the organization.

“It gives shareholders a sense of security that he’s still involved in some way, from an oversight perspective, so the markets will become less jittery,” she says.

C-suite behaviour

In many instances, the ease of the switchover is contingent upon how other members of the executive core behave, says Plotnick.

“The C-suite needs to look at the new CEO as the leader of the organization and not, consciously or unconsciously, go directly to the old CEO. Together, as a team, they should be providing a unified front but there really does need to be a well-planned-out transfer of accountability and transfer of leadership and what the new processes will look like.”

The big question is whether the new CEO is able to carve out a path that’s separate and unique from his predecessor, says Plotnick, meaning the new CEO, Andy Jassy, “is being perceived as a leader and given the room to grow and have that same external face that Jeff Bezos has had up to now.”

“The role that Jeff Bezos can play is really supporting [Jassy], easing the transition, bringing him along, transferring more and more,” she says.

Back in 2011, Apple went through a similar process when Steve Jobs transitioned to Tim Cook and that worked out nicely for the company, according to Plotnick.

“Apple was synonymous with [Jobs], there were a lot of question marks around what would happen and Tim Cook, for all intents and purposes, was able to make a name for himself and that’s because the process had been laid out. It’s not about the new CEO trying to emulate his predecessor, it’s finding your own path and being given the latitude to find their own path.”

Succession planning is a competitive advantage for those that want to thrive in the global economy, says one expert.

New skills for the board

When a CEO does make the switch to a board-level position, it’s “not a natural career path that your CEO role becomes chair of your board: it’s not a continuation, it’s a separate journey,” says Plotnick and an entirely new set of skills have to be mastered in order to be successful at the board level. 

“You have to move away from being the person in charge, the person making the decisions, to being part of a board. Very often, you don’t usually move from the CEO role to being board chair of another organization or just being part of a board, period,” says Plotnick. “You have a different interest, you have a broader perspective, you’re looking more externally, you’re looking at more stakeholder groups in terms of your role as a chair versus what you are as the CEO of an organization.”

For HR departments, helping executives succeed involves exposing them early on to boards of directors and enabling them to compile a “board resumé,” says Plotnick.

“It might be being on a subsidiary board of your organization and really starting to build those capabilities and thinking about how do you continue to build your exposure on a step-by-step way, so that you are ready to take on those board roles. It’s really looking internally within your organization and what role can you play in helping them secure board roles, developing them for board roles and helping them put together a board resumé, that is different than putting together your executive resumé.”

HR can be quite supportive in thinking about to build board readiness into the executive development processes, she says.

“[It’s about] ‘How do we provide opportunities for executives to be exposed to their board of their own organization and subsidiary boards?’ Really thinking through what you can do internally within the organization to support governance education.”

With the transition to millions who work from home during the pandemic, many CEOs have changed their response to the seismic shift in their workforce.

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