Who Knew That “Today” Could Show Good Succession Planning at Work?

Succession planning is one of those functions that many organizations talk about, but few actually do very well.

Think I’m all wrong about that? Well, here’s what former General Electric CEO Jack Welch and his wife Suzy had to say a few years ago when asked the question, What companies make good examples of succession planning done right?

It’s sad to say, but your question would be a heck of a lot easier to answer if you had asked for examples of succession planning done wrong. That list keeps getting longer. That list keeps getting longer. As we know, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch recently lost their CEOs, and it quickly became obvious that neither company had a successor in the wings. What was less obvious was how such a thing could happen.

Certainly examples of outstanding succession planning exist: Just look at Johnson & Johnson, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, and Caterpillar. Indeed, research shows that well over 50% of companies promote their CEOs from within. Such companies understand a central tenet of business— that a well-crafted succession plan vastly mini­mizes disruption…”

Betting big on a familiar face

Jack and Suzy Welch were talking about CEO succession planning, but they could have easily been talking about succession planning in general because in my experience, it’s one of those things that all-too-many companies do all-too-badly at all-too-many levels.

And, that’s why it’s gratifying when you see some well-known company with a prominent and high-level position fill it the right way, with someone groomed for the job from inside the company.

Everybody can learn from such a textbook example, but who knew that it would be NBC’s Today show that would school everyone on how to do succession planning right?

According to The Wall Street Journal:

NBC is betting half a billion dollars on a familiar face. The network’s news division said Monday that longtime “Today” show news anchor Ann Curry will take over as co-anchor on June 9, succeeding Meredith Vieira alongside Matt Lauer on TV’s most profitable couch…

Ms. Curry has long waited for this big promotion. She joined “Today” in 1997 and has been anchor of NBC’s prime-time news magazine show “Dateline” since 2005.

After being passed over for the co-anchor gig in 2006, when Ms. Vieira nabbed it, Ms. Curry raised her profile by covering big international stories. Last week, announcement of the transition was delayed because she went to Pakistan to report on the U.S. assault there that killed Osama bin Laden.”

Individual personalities are important

In other words, new Today show anchor Ann Curry has paid her dues and put in her time. She’s been with the show for nearly 15 years and has pushed to make sure she did everything to get ready for this opportunity after being passed over for it five years ago.

Yes, it’s coming from normally dysfunctional network television, and yes, it’s different from replacing a CEO or senior manager or executive, but the succession issues for NBC are pretty much the same as they are for every other organization.

“Individual personalities are hugely important because we have reached a point where the outlines of the (morning network) programs are essentially similar,” Richard C. Wald, a former NBC executive, told the Journal. “If you like one person or group of people better than the others, that’s the program you will watch.”

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How much different is that from any other company? Aren’t “individual personalities” equally important to the comfort level of an organization when one promotes an executive up into an open position? Doesn’t doing that benefit the company as a whole and impact people throughout the organization who know the promoted executive, what they are about, and the value they bring to the job?

And one more thing: isn’t it refreshing to see someone like Ann Curry, who has worked hard preparing for this opportunity, finally get her big shot? How many times have you seen the opposite, where the strong internal candidate who is ready and able get passed over because the Board or someone on high decides to scrap the succession plan and go outside?

Putting “performance of the business at risk”

This seems to be what happened at SHRM, where COO China Gorman got passed over for the CEO position back in 2008 in favor of outsider Lon O’Neil, who lasted in the top spot all of two years. Now, nearly a year after O’Neil’s departure, SHRM continues to drift on rudderless without a permanent CEO, a sad state of affairs for any large company much less a 250,000 member non profit association that touts itself as “the world’s largest HR organization.”

But SHRM isn’t alone in this, just a more egregious example because it doesn’t seem to practice what it preaches, at least when it comes to succession planning and preparing the organization for leadership changes.

Marshall Goldsmith hit the nail on the head about this when he wrote at the Harvard Business Review:

Many of the CEOs we talk with these days express concern about the lack of bench strength in their companies. They are very worried that they lack sufficient “ready now” candidates to replace planned & unplanned losses of key leaders. As a result, the future continuity and performance of the business is at risk. These same executives also tell us that their companies have been doing succession planning for years. On average, the executives we meet give their succession planning process a grade of C+ and they give their execution of succession plans a grade of D. If you are among the companies who are not happy with the impact of your succession planning process, you have plenty of company.”

Yes, succession planning stinks at all-too-many companies. Whether NBC’s decision to promote Ann Curry at the Today show will turn out well remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: it’s a textbook example of succession planning that organization’s everywhere can sit back, watch, and learn from – even if it is coming from a most unexpected place.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.