After an internal succession process comes to a close, there may be several disappointed, unsuccessful applicants. Chris Bjorling of Fidello, Inc. joins The HR Risk Podcast to discuss executive searches and how to keep unsuccessful applicants in the fold. Subscribe to The HR Risk Podcast on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app!
Jennings: Welcome to The HR Risk Podcast, the show where we talk to experts about the things that can go wrong in the workplace and how to avoid them. This podcast is presented by Ekdesk, the software that helps employers prevent harassment and spot talent inside their organizations. After the show, learn more at Ekdesk.com. But for now I’m your host, Andrew Jennings.
Jennings: Our topic today is Competing Heirs to the Throne. It’s not quite the Game of Thrones, but sometimes there are similarities between a corporate succession and the intrigues of the HBO show. Planning for and executing an executive succession involve enough kinds of risk to fill dozens of episodes of this podcast. But today we’re talking about how to manage the human side of the succession search. In a search that involves internal and external candidates competing with each other, disappointment is often unavoidable. Only one person can get the job after all, and for the unsuccessful applicant, it can be a hard blow that can in turn ripple into the workplace. To discuss this issue, our guest today is Chris Bjorling. Chris is the president of Fidello, Inc., an HR consulting and software firm focused on human performance. Chris, before we get started, can you tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself and the work that you do?
Bjorling: Yes, I’d love to, Andrew, thank you so much. I have been the president of Fidello, Inc. for the past 30 some years now. We started back in 1987 and it is an organization that has worked around human capital management. Through those years we’ve been working in the areas of succession planning, as well as career development and performance management influencing recruitment–so covering the whole gambit of the activity around moving people in and out of the organization and their full life cycle. A core belief of our team is that one size doesn’t fit all, so we don’t come in with a silver bullet because there isn’t a silver bullet. We come in and we start talking to the organization and look at the culture, look at the opportunities that they have before them, and create solutions that are beneficial to them, specific to their culture, their readiness and the work group that they have in front of them. So with all of that, I have a lot of different experience where we’ve been able to see things from highly successful and standard, to “wow, that’s an interesting approach” and it’s still successful.
Jennings: Alright, so our topic today is HR risk and competing heirs to the throne. And as I mentioned in the intro, it’s not quite Game of Thrones, but still very important. In your experience with succession scenarios, could you tell us a little bit about the common scenarios you have seen on this topic or maybe could you set the stage for us a little bit?
Bjorling: Fortunately unlike Game of Thrones, there are usually not swords involved. Succession is not always to the very top of the ladder, but sometimes I’m a below it because that top one usually comes down and then there’s still a lot of talent that gets moved around underneath there. It still all applies as you look at the jockeying and the positioning and so forth. We’ve seen a couple of different approaches to it, and they’re really kind of polar opposites. One is include the people, let them know that they’re part of the succession plan, keep them involved, keep them going, make it more of a sport. Or the second approach that we’ve seen is to kind of work it in the background and to keep it low key, maybe not identify the players, those as key successors, but to keep the process moving, provide opportunities for growth and development and to monitor the outcome. And so we’ve seen both sides succeed and we’ve seen both sides have their challenges over the years as well.
Jennings: So it sounds like the two typical scenarios you’ve seen are maybe somebody, or several people, are being groomed over time for an opening known to be coming down the pike. And then maybe the other approach is “we have a search going on and here’s the process” and we welcome applications internally?
Bjorling: Definitely, they’re both good approaches.
Jennings: How can recruiters or other folks involved in the succession process set expectations with internal candidates? Or is there usually just, “here are the logistics, this is how the process goes,” and there isn’t so much attention to the psychological or emotional aspects of an internal search?
Bjorling: Great question. A lot of times recruiters don’t play a role unless they’re being asked, the ones that go off and slay a beast and bringing it back for you. A lot of times it’s the talent team inside your organization. Your senior vice president of HR is often asked to lead the activity, and sometimes it’s the CEO themselves that create the process, monitor it, give direction and include recruiters if they feel that there’s a need to have external bodies coming in so that they can be reviewed. Or it might be that the board wants the team to move forward differently and take a different attack than what they had previously in the last administration. So there are different roles and responsibilities and there are different methodologies to get to that endpoint where you have potential candidates in front of you that you’re comparing. Hopefully you’re looking at them from an apples and apples standpoint versus an apples to oranges, so that you can get a better view of “how is this person compared to this person?” and “where do we get the best return or the opportunity for the organization?”
Jennings: There are a lot of risks that are associated with any succession, probably first and foremost on people’s minds is “we make the wrong decision and we get somebody who isn’t as effective in position as we’d hoped.” But what are some of the risks, whether you’re looking at it from the perspective of a company, or from the perspective of applicants for this competing heir scenario specifically, the risk associated with disappointment that might come at the end of the process, or competition during the process that maybe isn’t quite so healthy?
Bjorling: The risk the corporation has is that you put a person in place that appeared to have all the capabilities and all the strengths that you’re looking for, and then when they get in, there’s some reason for them not to be successful. So that is a huge risk that’s out there. It’s always a risk anytime you undergo a change. There’s a different personality that’s stepping in, sitting in that chair; there’s a different methodology sometimes for the way they manage, how they manage. And oftentimes when you put a new person in, it has a ripple effect, not just from the fact that others may have been personally not selected, but it may have a ripple effect in the fact that there is a different trust level that a person brings in with a different set of team members. And so the older team may end up being on the outs. They don’t feel that their opinion is valued.
Jennings: That’s a really interesting point. It kind of sounds a little bit more like Game of Thrones in that regard that not only are different people potentially vying for a position, but they might have folks who are part of their team or who are comfortable or have a good relationship with them. And in a way it’s a little bit, potentially, tribal. It’s not just between two applicants, but between their friends and supporters in the organization.
Bjorling: Definitely, you see the camps, you definitely see that Game of Thrones piece that “this is my army and this is who I come with.” And you hope that that’s minimized through the process and that everybody’s collectively on board to be a good corporate citizen as they go forward. But there’s always going to be some of that–”I worked better with Jane versus Jim”–and over time that works that way and the next thing you know, Jim’s out the door or off to the side someplace in the process. So that’s the risk to those individuals personally. But it also disruptive change for the organization. Whenever you see the new person at the top of the throne, as we keep using that reference, then they are, all these pieces have that time to get into, to get settled in, to get in place, and to reach more of a maximum output that gives the person the chance to not only lead effectively, but also lead within the cell they want to. And then at some point in time those results are directly related to their leading the organization and their staffing models and how well they integrated everybody else that was in the different camps back into the corporate culture. And then it’s writing for the next position, the next change that may occur in the future. So it’s continual process for most groups.
Jennings: That covers, I think, the lay of the land pretty well when we’re talking about how different teams integrate and adapt to changing leadership, whether it’s at the very top of the organization or somewhere else. I want to zoom in to get more interpersonal about the psychology of an internal candidate who’s competing for position that he or she really wants. It may be on the front-end, you recognize intellectually that you might not get it, and that if you don’t, it’s not necessarily a reflection on you or your value as a leader. But you’re probably coming into the process with some optimism bias. You’re not going to go out for something unless you think you have a strong shot at it or that you think you deserve it. Then you get the decision and you didn’t get the position. How does that affect you psychologically, maybe in ways that you didn’t anticipate at the start of the process? Maybe you thought that you’d be okay with not getting it, but it might feel differently on the other end after you don’t have that reward.
Bjorling: Great question. From a personal standpoint, it really has to do a lot with the security of the individual at hand, and where they felt that they were. And if they felt slighted–oftentimes we do feel qualified for the position–but for some reason were not selected. I think we’ve all experienced that, whether it’s in business or personal life or even a dating scenario. So it tends to be their personality and their collective history has some kind of indication to how they’re going handle this. Some will be good corporate citizens, tuck in the lip, move forward and look for the next spot and enjoy it. Some will look at it once they get going or they get elevated because once you put that in place, once you move somebody up, there’s a vacuum.
Bjorling: And so sometimes these candidates that didn’t make it to that top level slide into a different position and then they still see what occurs and they see that, “wow, I guess that really wasn’t for me right now.” And it’s a good thing. So those are the more pragmatic. But oftentimes, especially at the top level and especially at the top level for a larger organization, it’s a burn. It’s a real burn and they feel like they’ve been discarded and a lot of them leave. One of the classic examples of that was Jack Welch having General Electric, after he selected his successor, some of the other candidates just bailed on General Electric and they went off and had been extremely successful as CEOs at other organizations.
Bjorling: But from that personality, they kind of just took off and just said, “okay, I’m going to be elsewhere.” And it was there because of the great training, because it’s a great opportunity that they had for their own personal development. They’ve been a tremendous asset to the new organization they’ve been recruited into to help run. But it kind of goes down to the fact that people will respond to it differently. And you can get some sabotage if the people stay on board. I hate to tell you that, but that’s probably the worst case scenario is that sometimes people stick around and make the other person look bad. And that usually occurs for a short period of time before it’s discovered and cleaned up, but you don’t like that when you’re running an organization..
Bjorling: And I think that’s probably why a lot of times when you see the organizations working with emotional quotients, different personality tests, trying to understand people better, it helps them along the way to mitigate some of those issues as they move them forward. But the flare to be a CEO of a large organization, you have to have a strong personality and a strong belief in yourself. And when you’re not selected, it’s gonna show a little stronger.
Jennings: It’s all relative to to some degree. If there’s a competition for a mid-level position, that that can still be pretty intense for people who want that position. But it sounds like the risks of a bad reaction kind of fall into three buckets. One is the “I’m going to leave and find the opportunity that I want elsewhere because I’m ambitious and I have a lot of lot of human capital that I bring to the table.” The other is the act of sabotage scenario and then I think maybe a third bucket is the “I’m sticking around. I’m not sabotaging anything but I’m flagging in what I can contribute; I’ve lost a little bit of the fire in the belly that I might have brought to the table.” If I’m the HR team or the line management of a business–whether it’s the overall company or a smaller group within a business–how can I proactively help try to mitigate those risks to avoid, for example, the high performer who doesn’t get the promotion leaving in search of better pastures elsewhere or, the sabotage scenario or the person who might flag as a contributor?
Bjorling: Excellent question. It really kinda goes back to the personality of the leader that comes in place. The person who comes in at the top level–and then I’ll deal with it down a little bit lower in the organization–really has to do kind what Lincoln did years ago. There was a book, Team of Rivals, basically what he did is he took all of his people that he usurped along the way of his run for president and brought them in and made them partners in the process. So as you bring them in, you nurture them along. You get them on the same team. You get them reengaged back into the process that, “you didn’t make that at the moment, but it’s still a team effort and we’re all contributing to this, to our success in and welfare.” Because most of the individuals at the top of the organization are vested in the organization with stock and they have a lot of skin in the game, whether they’re in the top seat or they’re not in the top seat.
Bjorling: So there’s a great motivation for them to be highly successful and contributing in a better working relationship than not a better working relationship. It really rests upon that new leader to get the engagement in and to work to value opinions. Maybe there was a definite personality difference between the successor that was selected versus the candidate who wasn’t. It’s oftentimes they’re the ones that aren’t going to come in when there’s the reach-out.
Bjorling: Now just switch the scenario a little bit. If you’re deeper in the organization, whether it’s a level two, or level three, there’s still more of an opportunity for you to work with the individuals at potential alternatives. “Hey, it may not have been time for you to be the president of this division, but what we want you to be is X, Y, Z over here.” And it gives you still that development path that you’re saying, “okay, I’m still getting the opportunity to expand and grow.” As long as they’re not feeling like they’re put on the shelf someplace or being cast aside to a know-nothing position. Again, it’s all around how do you treat them, where are you placing them and do they still see that there’s an opportunity for them to grow and expand within the organization or to continue their own personal development so they become more attractive over time. If a position in a different organization, a different company, comes available that they may then move off to do that. So a lot of times the candidates who don’t make it at the lower levels, as they’re moving up, will see it still as an opportunity for career growth and development as they are continuing to mature in their business space.
Jennings: I like that point. It sounds like the approach, whether you’re in the business leadership or you’re in a talent management position, is to make sure that unsuccessful candidates from one position keep that momentum of professional development going so that they can be in a position to go out for the next position or they are still keeping that fire in their belly until that opportunity comes. And maybe that opportunity is elsewhere, but in any case, you’re at least keeping them for the time that you’ve got them and you’re getting that benefit of an active contributor in the workplace.
Jennings: Is there any kind of competing concern there that I, as a leader, I need to be empathetic. I need to exercise that emotional quotient. I need to be aware and cognizant of potential disappointment that somebody has and the retention risks that poses or the organizational, the risks that poses if we don’t keep somebody in the fold and engaged. Is there any conflict between needing to do that work, but also at the same time a sense of “I’ve got a business to run and I need others on the team to be professional. We all have professional setbacks or disappointments and, and that’s just part of the job.” How does either an HR leader or business line leader manage those two competing interests?
Bjorling: Oh, that’s a great question. It really relates to who’s involved in the selection process to begin with. You know, is it just the CEO or is it that senior vice president of HR or the CFO or whatever the title. If they’re involved, then there’s a greater opportunity for that coaching and counseling to work with a new CEO to say, “you got it, congratulations, but we need to do some reach-outs here. What are you willing to do?” So there is some opportunity for that conversation to occur in that capacity, as long as there’s a good trust factor between the CHRO and the newly placed person. We’re making the assumption in the statement that is. So as they coach/counsel with them, it’s an opportunity for them to reach out and then also for that same CHRO, or senior vice president, to work with those who didn’t make it.
Bjorling: And hopefully I’ve done a little softening the beachhead before the announcement was made or right after, so that it goes down through the process. And along the way, there is going to be some hand-holding. But you’re right, at some point in time it’s like “we’ve got to be here now, and we’ve got to be producing.” Part of it is going to be the personality of that CEO. Some are going to be more compassionate and like you say, having the emotional quotient to deal a little better with those people for a period of time. Others are just going to be the bull in china shop: “it’s my ship.” I had an organization we worked with years ago, love them dearly. We did specifically a succession plan for them.
Bjorling: They had the CEO and the CEO was the sponsor for the succession activity. His head of the HR group wanted one sheet of paper on everybody each year and they talked about each person each year. They probably had 250 names in their pool because they now know, “well, we’re not only looking for the C-suite positions, but also directors and vice presidents.” So they really process through. They did 360s in a lot of things to get data to the point where it was needed. Well, that CEO decided to step down. He steps down and because of their succession efforts, they place a new CEO, a great person who continues on with the path that they were charting on, gets great results. Two years later, after taking the position, he dissolves the succession plan process within their organization, and a couple of years later they were being highlighted in the Harvard Business Review from the growth potential standpoint in their industry. And he talked about that succession plan, that process that they had and they did it well. But the irony for me was, “well, but you stopped that process.” So again, it goes back to the personality of the person doing it and what are they going to do for the next step.
Jennings: As part of a succession plan, do you think that integrated in that should be some plan for what to do after the search is complete? For example, “these are the outreach expectations that we have, or this is the process that should be done afterwards to keep unsuccessful applicants still in that pool of 200 names or so that you mentioned, that we’re actively developing and thinking about for new opportunities.”
Bjorling: It really needs to be a continual process. The event may have been just to select the CEO or president or whatever you’re looking for. But the reality of it is the most successful organizations we’ve seen have had the process in place that continues to grow and develop and yeah, you’re going to lose people. We had a CEO once years ago say, “Hey, I’m going to train everybody who comes to my organization and get them their MBA, and somebody goes to them said, “well, half the people you train and pay for an MBA leave.” And he turned around and said, “yeah, but half stay.” But at a point in time you have to look at “is this just for the one moment or is this for the strength of our organization as a whole?”
Bjorling: And the good programs that we’ve seen are the ones that are continual. You go through the instances where you place somebody and you’re going to get some fall off. It’s part of life. Some people passed before their time, there are accidents, there are health issues, and you sometimes have to fill that vacuum rather quickly along the way. I remember years ago I had an executive vice president call me one day and said, “Chris, I need somebody who speaks Italian,” because we ran a system for them that included all of the succession pieces. But it was very heavily concentrated on the employee and the manager putting in information around the person, such as the wants of the person.
Bjorling: It’s an aspiration model. So, somebody who speaks Italian, worked with company X, Y, Z, willing to relocate immediately. And there were four or five other criteria, that they were a certain position, they had this type of performance reviews: a lot of the pieces that you’d see in a normal succession. I said, “here’s six candidates.” Within two weeks, he placed a new director in Italy for somebody that was out there and all of a sudden everybody wanted to be filling out the personal profile of career aspirations.
Jennings: Oh funny how that works.
Bjorling: Yeah. And you know, nobody in that case, nobody was hurt. They had to do it because of a personal crisis for the incumbent. But it allowed for business continuity to occur because they had data at their fingertips, because they had been thinking long-term for it. So hopefully that answers part of your questions though.
Jennings: It does. I think that’s a good segue into one question that I had, which is we’re always interested in the role that data can play in mitigating HR risk. What are some of the metrics related to competing internal applicants that HR teams can or should be collecting and how can those metrics be used to help shape decisions to avoid some of the risks that we’ve been talking about?
Bjorling: That’s a great question because there’s a lot of different data elements that you could pull in on somebody and, and it does vary by organization and culture. Some of the ones that we’ve seen that have been most successful are, of course, “how well do they perform? Are they achieving results when they come into a new location? Are they able to work within the business model? Are they able to work within the culture?”
Bjorling: Oftentimes, especially if you recruit somebody into a higher position to come from a different corporate world that had a different culture, it’s did they fit in here? So you have to really look at that aspect, from that data standpoint, how well are they scoring, are they being viewed as being part of the team, part of the culture? Are they viewed as coming forward and providing strategic direction. And again, that depends upon where you sit in the organization and what you’re looking for. But as you start to look at those types of assessments, as you look at the performance, values, sometimes even what’s happening with the stock price, unfortunately because it’s quarterly, but you start to weigh in these factors, you then bring back, “okay, let’s look at some 360 types of components.”
Bjorling: Look at personal stories where people are coming in. So all these data elements can really help you in understanding “is this person a good fit?” Not only from the business standpoint, but from that cultural fit, from that personality fit, and we’re seeing all of this a lot in the #MeToo movements out there. Do they have any skeletons in their closet that shouldn’t be there, that are going to cause problems down the line? So all these data elements, all these pieces in there, all these components that you can look at, measure or understand, and I’m not being very specific and I’m doing that just for a reason because there are so many there. But once you start pulling in what’s important and that’s a cultural fit from an organization standpoint, those are the things you really need to be looking at as you start to evaluate your leaders long-term. Because if you can’t evaluate your leadership from what you’re collecting, then you should probably change what you’re collecting.
Jennings: I think you really hit on a thread that, that I’ll just pull out a little bit more with the reference to #MeToo to issues that pop up. I suspect that it’s the case that as people are moving up the ladder their qualities and their skills scale up, but it could also be the case that potential issues with that person also scale up with them. And so that’s a risk that companies should be thinking whether it’s past complaints about somebody or any weaknesses or deficiencies that that might pop out. It definitely deserves some extra scrutiny because if you look and say, “oh, well this person has increased performance of this division by 20 percent in the last five years. Imagine if we scaled that up to this larger division or to the whole company,” that’s a fair analysis perhaps. But you should also look at the deficiencies and think, “okay, well if we scaled those up to the entire division or to the entire company, what would that look like for us?”
Bjorling: Yeah, that’s very true. You know, we always look at it and say, “ultimately, when you’re moving people around, are they skilled, do they have the capabilities to do what you need them to do?” In the position you do need them to be in, “can I get the results? Do they play well in the sandbox?” Because we’ve seen the people that are capable, highly efficient at getting results, but then suck the life out of the room when they’re in there or other issues that are, that people have historically buried. But you can’t get away with that anymore, so you really need to make sure that you have that full spectrum of understanding on the individual as you move them forward. Otherwise you will exponentially cause issues for yourself.
Jennings: Chris, if our listeners want to continue the conversation or learn a little bit more about what you do at Fidello, how can they reach you or get that information?
Jennings: Okay, great, and I’ll put a link to that in the show notes as well. Our guest today has been Chris Bjorling. Chris, thank you for joining us.
Bjorling: Thank you very much, Andrew.