Monday, January 12, 2009

Learn from your predecessors--the only way, if you're a CEO or President

Imagine that you have a job that's so exclusive that not only could you not find a book teaching you how to do it, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in your town, or state, who could give you much help.

The job of corporate CEO is like that. So is President of the United States. In each of these positions, learning on the fly seems costly. Is there an alternative?

Yes there is. If only it were used more often.

This question was taken up in two recent articles. In the January Harvard Business Review, Thomas Friel and Robert Duboff discuss "The Last Act of a Great CEO." The last act being an outgoing CEO's sharing knowledge, experience, and perspectives on the job with her successor.

And an opinion piece by Sheryl Gay Stolberg in yesterday's New York Times remarked on the rarity of gatherings like Pres-elect Obama's recent lunch with four other living presidents ("The Very Elite Club that Never Meets").

Friel and Duboff write this about new CEOs learning from their predecessors:

It is difficult to imagine a richer source of information and advice for a new CEO, even on a purely personal level. Being successful as the chief executive of a major enterprise is hardly a straightforward matter; the right combination of style, skill, and focus can vary dramatically depending on the context. One CEO we interviewed put it simply: “You can’t really understand this position until you’re in it.” At the very least, the departing executive has a unique and relevant point of view on the dynamics of the board of directors and the executive team. Often he or she has the most strategic and current understanding of the issues the company faces.

Stolberg's article hits the same theme:

“One thing historians have talked about for years is that there should be a better way for sitting presidents to use the experience of former presidents, and it doesn’t happen enough,” said the presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “The reasons are varied: sometimes personal antagonisms, shyness, the feeling that the former president is too removed from today’s politics to know very much. The result is that there is a reservoir of wisdom and experience that is not relied upon.”

I have an idea that might help. Or, rather, my wife Maura had the idea and she let me borrow it. Companies, and the executive branch, need to create narrative repositories like The Mistake Bank. A repository would be a place for presidents or CEOs to recount events. (Especially mistakes, since we learn very well from mistakes.) and what they learned from them. The repository would be available only to successors. New CEOs and presidents, or experienced ones, could dip into the repository when they had a question or issue they wanted some perspective on.

I've done this, and I know how to set them up, and how to make use of them. CEOs, Pres.-elect Obama, it's time to put this into action. You know where to reach me.

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