“Accidental leader – a long-serving employee who has spent all or a significant part of their career at one company and is promoted to the top job primarily on the basis of their loyalty, length of service and company knowledge

Some of us have experienced receiving a corporate communication on a Friday informing us that a new leader or executive has been appointed (commonly a CEO or MD) and that the new incumbent has either arrived or will start on Monday.

Furthermore, this new appointee was the Commercial or Finance Director last week but now the most senior person you have worked with in the business for many years has left the business “for family reasons” or “to pursue new opportunities” and seemingly without so much as a by your leave. Questions abound but are generally unanswered, or at least at that point in time.

This is not unusual. Businesses regularly go through a change of leadership and some would advocate that it is essential for company survival. The King is dead. Long live the King! So there is nothing necessarily worrying or intrinsically wrong with changes of this nature. Or is there?

As HR professionals we tend to encourage consistent systems and processes and prefer the stability of working to a plan, e.g. succession planning and recruitment. We also like to think that our recruitment processes are robust and, given a little advance notice, capable of producing a credible shortlist of suitable senior candidates. And if we are a senior HR executive that we would be informed of the change in advance or even asked to actively participate in the hiring of a new leader.

Our professional sensitivities aside, should we then stand idly by and watch what may be an accidental leader take the helm?

It may be too late. The company hierarchy or the Board may have decided that promoting a company ‘lifer’ to the key leadership role is a bet on someone who is already deemed a safe pair of hands. They know the business inside out and they have served the company for 20 or 30 years in a variety of key roles. What could possibly go wrong?

In stable businesses, operating in stable markets, with significant history and heritage, companies can often be well-advised to opt for what they believe is a low risk strategy and promote from within. The rationale is that a history of positive comments from peers and customers plus long service equate to outstanding future potential. However, this approach is not without its risks and there is a danger that senior management can be too obliging and just nod through the internal candidate without a proper evaluation of leadership potential, either in absolute terms or relative to any talent available externally.

Similarly, it is well documented that an outstanding sales person will not necessarily make a good Sales Director. The two roles require a materially different set of skills and competencies which are not necessarily present in the same employee-but companies can easily overlook this if care is not applied to the selection process.

What can HR do to ensure that it is part of all senior hiring decisions and how should HR respond to internal hiring decisions that it hasn’t been made (or allowed to be) part of?

  1. Develop robust policies and procedures for all facets of recruitment and promotion. Get sign off from senior management, including the Board if appropriate. Make sure these policies also cover inter-group, divisional transfers and expatriates.
  2. Include the provision of coaching, mentoring and development – the provision of this support could be the difference between success or failure for new leaders and ‘accidental leaders’ in particular.
  3. If the hiring decision is a fait accompli try and ensure where possible that all documentation and data are up to date and reflect the decision making process, e.g. succession plan score board, interview notes and performance ratings, etc. Senior appointments made on the nod are particularly vulnerable to allegations of discrimination since there is no hard evidence that the chosen candidate was actually the best one.
  4. Include external candidates in the recruitment process and use these as a benchmark to compare the proposed internal candidate with. This will add integrity to the recruitment process and help draw attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the internal candidate, enabling you to give constructive insights into the suitability of candidates.
  5. If you are senior and have access to the new leader and senior management, try and position yourself so that you can act as support and mediation if required. Build in sessions and activities which bring the new leader and the senior management team together at an early stage and which require the new appointee to act as such – that will reinforce their change of status relative to their former colleagues, which will benefit both.
  6. The new appointee is likely to be leaving a team behind and the team left behind may be getting a new head. Take an active role in applying the points mentioned above to that team also.
  7. Own the communication process for all the changes taking place, but don’t let this be corrupted or tainted by your own personal views about the appointment process or the individual appointee, especially if negative!