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Train ‘inside outsiders’ to take over

by on
in Hiring,Human Resources

As a leader, you don’t want to think about succession. Why would you? Succession suggests a lame duck, failure or death. But if you want to be remembered as a good leader, you must come to grips with who will run the business after you’re gone.

Then it becomes the classic dilemma between insiders or outsiders:
  • Insiders bring knowledge, a frame of reference and a point of view about the organization. But they might not know how to lead.

  • Outsiders come in with detachment from the group’s traditions, ideologies and shibboleths so they can see what’s really needed and move the organization forward. But they may bog down in fights over legacy.
Insiders look incomplete and outsiders look like an imperfect fit.

The answer can be found in a rare bird: the “inside outsider” who understands the business at hand, including its systems and culture, but also what needs to change.

Example: Anne Mulcahy, chairwoman and CEO of Xerox, started as a sales rep in 1976 and has brought back the company from near death because she sought new direction from a huge slice of friends and acquaintances at the firm.

Bottom line: Organize your enterprise so that up-and-coming insiders get a chance to run various facets of it early in their careers. That means managing budgets and planning to let them make mistakes and learn. Don’t play “gotcha.” Invest your time, your wisdom and concern.

Ultimately, you may need to bring in an outsider, but as long as you find that “inside outsider”—somebody with a degree of detachment but who looks at her corporate inheritance as if she’s just bought the company— you’re golden.

—Adapted from “The Identity Trap,” Eyal Press, Columbia Journalism Review, and “Growing CEOs from the Inside,” Sean Silverthorne interviewing Joseph Bower, HBS Working Knowledge, http://hbswk.hbs.edu.

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