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How to assess if an internal candidate is the right successor

William Vanderbloemen
William Vanderbloemen is the CEO of Vanderbloemen. |

Many times people ask me, “William, we have a great candidate on staff who could be my successor. How should we figure out if he/she is the right person?” Determining a new leader for your church is a high-pressure and high-impact decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Here are some lessons I learned about assessing internal candidates.

  1. Look in the family (with a warning)

I think internal candidates are a fantastic place to start your search for a successor. That sounds like I’m working myself out of a job, but I’m not. The longest-standing metaphor I can find for succession is that of a heart transplant. If you talk to transplant doctors, you’ll find out very quickly that there’s one aspect of transplant that separates the best from the rest — the tissue match. You can find a very healthy heart, and put it in a very healthy body, but if there is no tissue match it can be a bad ending for everyone.

When doctors are looking for a kidney or heart transplant where do they first look? Almost always doctors will look for family members. But, not every family member is the right tissue match and the same goes for your organization.

Just as you would hire a transplant doctor to assess the efficacy of a good tissue match, organizations hire us to do the same. Many times we assess both internal candidates and external candidates, and it’s a win for everyone involved. If an internal candidate is named as the successor, they can go to bed at night knowing that the organization has looked everywhere on the planet and isn’t just hiring someone they know, but is hiring the right person for the job. On the other hand, organizations will have an unnatural tendency to look at people they know rather than search for the unknown. Having an outside guide will help you as an organization look at both the internal and the external and then objectively choose between the two.

2.  Don’t create a horse race

There aren’t many cardinal rules in succession, but here’s one of the few that I know. When working with a faith-based organization, it is not a good idea to pit candidates within the organization against one another for succession.

Many years ago, when Jack Welch was looking for his successor, he had three internal candidates at General Electric that could have taken his place. He told the three of them this, and the horse race was on. It sounded like a fresh and transparent way to find a new successor.

In a faith-based organization, this is a disaster waiting to happen. For starters, most faith-based organizations are much smaller than General Electric. And unlike the corporate world, faith-based organizations have donors, all of whom have favorite staff members. So not only are you putting employees against one another, but you may inadvertently set donors against one another, as well as volunteers. In this case, an organization that is trying to do good in the world can find itself in a long season of internal conflict.

3. Take ½ the time you think you should

Many times when looking at an internal candidate, I find clients that have someone on staff who “isn’t quite ready.” A period of overlapping the outgoing leader with the incoming is often a good solution. The most common question I am asked about succession is “How long should an overlap be between my successor and me?”

I have yet to see an overlap go longer than two years and have a positive return. Most people think two years isn’t long enough, but once they’re going through the succession, two years is too long. I’m reminded of my mother’s advice about packing for a trip. She used to say “Lay out everything you want to take on the trip, then put half of it back in the closet. Now you’re packed for the trip.” When you’re looking at an overlap or a period of grooming your successor, take less time for overlap than you think you need to.

4. It’s only nepotism if you stink

A question I’ve been asked many times is “William, what about my son or another family member?” I have one client who says “You know William, I’ve told my family that it’s only nepotism if you stink.” The fact of the matter is that many faith-based companies are similar to small businesses and the vast majority of small businesses in the United States are family businesses. Nobody acts like an owner except owners. Nobody thinks like a founder except founders. And sometimes that means the very best successor is a family member.

However, there are some very deadly pitfalls to hiring the wrong family member as a successor. If you’re considering a family member as a successor, I would strongly urge you to get a coach, consultant, or outside opinion to help weigh the pluses and minuses. Hiring someone with experience in this area could make all of the difference to getting the succession right. And getting it right with family is, in my experience, paramount. Nobody is more difficult to fire than family.

In conclusion

Family may be a wonderful place to look for your successor. Internal staff members might also be great. Just realize that you will naturally have a bias toward internal candidates because choosing what is known is always more appealing than facing the unknown. That bias is natural, but it can keep you from making a wise decision. After managing a couple of thousand successions in my time in this role, I can tell you that taking a little extra time, spending a little money to get it right, and being careful will pay big dividends in the long run.

William Vanderbloemen is the CEO and Founder of Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices, and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally.

Follow him on Twitter @wvanderbloemen.

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