Exit, Stage Right

Chancellor Merkel thought she had her successor all lined up—until now. How leaders must deal with succession plans gone awry.



It was going to be a graceful bow-out for the “most powerful woman in the world.” But now, German chancellor Angela Merkel is watching her succession plan disintegrate.

It started when public support for Merkel’s heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (frequently referred to as AKK), plunged. At least one news service noted that the majority of Germans see AKK as unfit to lead the country. Meanwhile, Andrea Nahles, the leader of the political party that partners with Merkel’s in Germany's parliament, abruptly quit after recent poor election results.

All this means that Merkel’s well-laid plans to end her decade-plus leadership smoothly are on hold—at least until a new succession plan is implemented and a successor becomes obvious. This, of course, is the sort of situation that no government or corporate executive wants to arise.

Smart firms do spend considerable time and effort on succession plans, but as Germany is discovering, the focus on one candidate can send even well-designed ones awry. “You need a very, very clear picture of what is required,” says Jan Mueller, Korn Ferry’s global vice president for marquee accounts. “You wouldn’t pick a person just because they worked their way up the corporate ladder.”

Indeed, experts say the drama over Merkel’s successor emphasizes why organizations shouldn’t put all their focus on just one potential successor. Betting on just one candidate will backfire if the heir’s on-the-job performance starts to falter or if they develop health or personal problems that prevent them from even taking the job.

A better option is to develop and evaluate multiple potential successors over the course of a couple of years. For instance, analysts say JPMorgan Chase’s recently reshuffled management ranks will give the bank a chance to evaluate which of its high-ranking executives could replace longtime CEO Jamie Dimon.

That type of reshuffling also highlights another idea behind succession planning—the ideal candidate may not be the person who is next in line on the current organization chart. It’s why shrewd firms invest in leadership-development programs throughout the organization, not just in the C-suite. Experts say boards should be finding and developing the next three generations of candidates for CEO and other key leadership roles.

This type of ongoing succession planning involves a lot of work, of course, and it can continue even after the designated successor takes the top job. Even CEOs or other leaders who have made it through the evaluation process may struggle once they have the top job. If that’s the case, get the new boss a coach, says Werner Penk, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and president of the firm’s technology practice. “Do everything you can to make this person strong,” he says. “No one wants to be seen as someone to be coached, but every single leader in the relevant position has someone whom they can talk to.”