How It Feels to Find Your Successor
Recently I was asked to “share a personal or professional experience mentoring someone you are particularly proud of and why” and this is what I wrote:
When Karla came to work for Code2040 she described herself as a “midwife for the ideas of others.” It was a perfect skill set for someone who was to report to a founder-CEO. And Karla was excellent at the challenging, refining, and operationalizing needed to translate high level strategic objectives into programmatic initiatives. She was also a talented manager and knew how to take the intangibles of culture and start to codify them into common vocabulary and expectations. She was an invaluable number two. After about a year of working with Karla, I started to think she could be more than a number two. I knew I would leave Code2040 eventually, and while I didn’t know when, I always had one ear out for someone who could potentially be my successor at that time. I started to give Karla new and different types of assignments. I was invited to keynote? Perhaps Karla could take my place. NPR wanted an interview? How about Karla. Time to make a big decision? Get Karla’s best thinking and walk her through mine; be clear how decisions were made at the top. Board meeting? Bring her in to present. During a reorg I put business development and account management under her, since it was an area in which she had no experience but that she would need to be familiar with if she were to take on a bigger role. I made choices like that for about a year. It was the most intentional, hands-on mentoring relationship I’ve ever had. It wasn’t about going to coffee and answering questions. It wasn’t about making introductions or taking time sensitive calls. Of course all those things happened. But this was about intentionally creating an arc of experience for someone that would take them to their next level professionally. One day in summer 2017 I was sitting down with Karla for a strategy meeting. It’s the type of meeting where typically I’d share some observations and questions I was wrestling with, she’d help refine my thinking, and then we’d create an action plan. This meeting was different. We sat down to chat and Karla led: “I have some things I’ve been noticing in the space that I think you should be thinking about and I’d like to talk you through them.” I was momentarily stunned, but recovered quickly and we dove in. This marked a turning point in my mind. Karla was not just responding to my vision, she was creating her own. At that point, I knew that she had the potential to be Code2040’s next CEO. Over the following six months I engaged in a series of strategic, professional, and personal reflections that led to my decision to step down as CEO. And I was extremely gratified when the Board chose Karla to be my successor. I cried the day that we formally transitioned. It was bittersweet to be sure, but the sweetest part was watching Karla step up into the role and begin to embrace her leadership. I was so proud.