Briefings Magazine

Progression, Not Succession, in the Boardroom

Planning for board transitions over three to five years expands the candidate pool considerably.

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By: Jane Edison Stevenson

Stevenson is vice chair of Korn Ferry’s Board & CEO Services business.

Not too long ago, a company’s nominating and governance chair approached me for help in replacing two board directors who plan to retire at the end of 2024. I was about to start work on the project when I asked, “Is anyone else expected to retire soon?” Indeed, there were three other directors who would reach the mandatory retirement age within the next four years. So I asked the board chair if they would be open to thinking about how the company would fill all five seats—creating a thoughtful plan that was not only about future recruitment, but also about developing the board as a team.

There are plenty of trends in the boardroom right now. For instance, companies want directors with global experience in specific geographies. Experts in technology and cybersecurity can write their own director tickets. Sitting CEOs, who took a back seat to functional experts for several years, are once again in high demand. But the idea of “board progression”—or thinking about several years’ worth of board openings, rather than just an individual director’s departure—is quietly taking root in boardrooms big and small. 

Sure, it might seem ambitious to think about board seats that won’t actually be open until the late 2020s. But the idea isn’t to look for these future directors all at once. Instead, it’s to develop the board into the most effective team possible. 

The best boards have what large-cap board director and former PepsiCo CEO Steve Reinemund calls “corporate wisdom.” Collectively, their directors have the skill sets, viewpoints, and experiences to guide and challenge management, evaluate the current business, and anticipate the future of the organization.

When board members leave, however, the team dynamic changes. And over the next couple of years, a lot of directors will likely leave. In 2023, directors aged 66 to 70—a time when many people are thinking about retirement—held 24 percent of S&P 500 director seats, up from 21 percent in 2019. Not all of these older directors will retire in the same year, which is where board progression comes in. 

Boards adopting the progression concept can start exploring which skill sets, experiences, and even leadership styles they’ll need, and identify candidates who could have the right fit.

Board progression also acknowledges a simple fact: If you wait until a director’s seat opens before reaching out to top candidates, many will already be spoken for. Incumbent CEOs can almost never serve on more than one board outside their own. It’s also particularly hard to find board candidates from underrepresented groups, who are often sitting on multiple boards already. Planning out a board’s composition over a period of years, however, expands the candidate pool considerably. A current CEO might leave their executive position or board-director seat in a year or two. Additional diverse board candidates will emerge in the near future because of the increasing number of diverse senior executives moving up through the corporate ranks. 

Because board progression isn’t done overnight, some firms may want director candidates to join the board in an advisory capacity. Even if these people don’t have the bandwidth immediately, they can spend a little time over the next couple of years getting to know the organization while the board gets to know them as well. As someone who has placed hundreds of directors, I can tell you that how a director meshes with other directors is far more important than what’s on his or her résumé.

By the time one of these progressed candidates becomes a full voting member, they’ve developed the right relationships and insights. Plus, they’ve had time to build a good working rapport with their director peers. How well can this work? A few years ago, a board client brought on an advisory board member who a year later assumed an open seat—and in 2023, his director peers elected him chair.

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