Career Advice Mar 09 2012

How to Become Top Dog in the C-Suite

By joann s.lublin

You're competing against colleagues in a horse race for a plum executive post. Everyone likes your work, so you expect to win.

You're wrong. It takes more than superior performance to cross the finish line nowadays, as corporate boards have increased their focus on management succession. At the same time, boards rarely divulge the additional requirements that executives must meet to land a senior spot.

"Most companies do a really bad job of communicating what people need to win,'' says John Beeson, a succession-planning consultant and author of "The Unwritten Rules,'' a book about executive advancement. "You usually are operating in the dark in a horse race.''

It's such a mystery that recruiters Spencer Stuart even compiled a handbook for internal candidates. Many questions "arise in the high-stakes dynamics of executive appointments,'' the 10-page document says. Nearly 20 companies have used the guide since 2009, estimates James M. Citrin, co-head of Spencer Stuart's CEO and board practice.

Contests to pick the next chief executive are raging inside big businesses such as Ford Motor Co., Intel Corp., Pepsico Inc. and Walt Disney Co. Though a number of companies hire outsiders, moving up still represents the most common route to the top.

I sought strategies for winning a horse race from executives who've run one—plus recruiters, directors and coaches. Each cited numerous little-known rules that you should heed while vying to become a C-suite executive or subsidiary president. Among them:

Avoid premature coronation in the media.

Being touted too soon as the heir apparent will magnify any minor gaffes you make. You also risk creating factions because "co-workers often spend time unproductively trying to figure out how the succession will play out,'' warns Greg Brenneman, a former CEO of Burger King Corp. and two other concerns. He has observed multiple horse races as a director of four public companies.

Mark Fields, president of Ford's operations in North and South America, already broke this rule. He's considered a candidate to succeed Alan Mulally, who will likely leave his post at auto maker within two years. Last month, Fields cooperated on a prominent New York Times profile. "Ford's Inside, In Sight of the Crown,'' its headline read.

Fields told the Times that his business unit had "a lot to celebrate,'' but ducked a question about his chances to run Ford. In an interview with the Journal, a person close to the company emphasizes that "he is not the only internal candidate.''

"Mark is absolutely focused on running the Americas and contributing to Ford's profitable growth,'' a spokeswoman says.

Anticipate long auditions.

Horse races can last years. Last October, Disney announced that Robert Iger will give up the corner office in March 2015. The move has set up a protracted contest between Thomas Staggs, leader of the theme-park division, and Jay Rasulo, chief financial officer.

By signaling his exit far in advance, Iger puts extraordinary pressure on those executives. Iger "operated as if in a glass house" before Disney directors promoted him to CEO from president, according to the Spencer Stuart handbook. Disney declined to comment.

You're always on display during a horse race partly because boards constantly assess internal contenders "without being obvious,'' observes Dennis Carey, a vice chairman of recruiters Korn/Ferry International. However, Citrin cautions, your candidacy may fail "if you appear to be constantly performing for an audience rather than just doing your job well.''

Give lieutenants extra credit.

A successful retail-industry executive says this advice helped him win a hotly contested internal horse race years ago. A trusted inside mentor urged him to stop using the word "I" and "regularly distribute credit for results,'' he explains.

In bestowing bouquets, however, "make sure your fingerprints are on the accomplishments,'' consultant Beeson suggests. So you should introduce and conclude your team's presentation to the big brass about an important initiative, he adds.

Though a corporate board will never say so, "it's also smart to absorb all the blame for missteps,'' says John Wood, a vice chairman of recruiters Heidrick & Struggles International Inc.

Befriend your rivals.

In late February, Johnson & Johnson tapped Alex Gorsky as its next leader starting this spring. His main competitor was fellow vice chairman Sheri McCoy.

The executives appear to enjoy a close bond and "had an understanding between them that 'if you win, I will work for you' – and vice versa,''' a drug-industry recruiter recalls. Gorsky may keep McCoy by making her chief operating officer, say people close to the company.

"The board is very eager to see the two of them run J&J for the next ten years,'' notes one such individual. J&J declined to comment.

Distinguish yourself from the incumbent.

You must walk a fine line between being a strong team player and showing "you actually have the chops to do the job,'' a food-industry executive says. He says he recently lost a horse race largely over this sticky issue.

Demonstrating loyalty and independence simultaneously "is an art," agrees David Dotlich, chairman of Pivot Leadership LLC, an executive-coaching firm. His solution? Alert the incumbent before any public challenge, and don't attack topics he or she cares deeply about.

Greed is not good.

In 2009, a media-industry executive was the internal front-runner to become a group head, reporting to the CEO. Although they offered him the position, he failed to secure the job.

Pay negotiations began, and the executive demanded a package "that essentially matched what the long-serving incumbent had,'' remembers Citrin, who led the search. "The board found it distasteful.''

The unsuccessful candidate soon quit.

Write to Joann S. Lublin at joann.lublin@wsj.com



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