The much-ballyhooed succession planning process is not all that it is cracked up to be. With apologies to long time readers, yes, here I go again on a topic I wrote about in this space many years ago. My opinions about it haven’t changed. If anything, witnessing numerous examples of credit union CEO turnover in recent years has convinced me even more that adopting a succession plan is not the ultimate answer for filling planned or unexpected CU CEO vacancies. This despite all the recent high-profile CEO firings and all the hand wringing over the high number of credit union CEOs expected to reach retirement age in the next five years. Supposedly this fact alone will create a plethora of available CU CEO positions that can best be filled, according to succession plan advocates, with a formal plan in place. I disagree. I decided to weigh in with my thoughts once again because lately more and more credit union folks are speaking out pushing for succession plans for every credit union. Some have even taken to calling such plans crucial. Included in this number are human resource types and credit union consultants with a vested interest as well as some well meaning credit union boards and CU trade groups. (Where was the succession plan when CUNA CEO Ralph Swoboda was fired and months later a credit union unknown, Dan Mica, was hired to replace him?) Even high-placed NCUA spokespersons are pushing every credit union to have a detailed plan in place in the event the credit union CEO gets hit by a bus on the way to the office. So once again, after plowing through all the reasons given on why they are absolutely necessary, I still don’t support succession plans. For smaller credit unions with only a handful of staff, designating one of them the heir apparent makes little sense. Often the staff structure consists of a “manager” and the rest of the staff, usually a teller or two. It might make more sense to have a merger plan in place for any eventuality that removes the current president of a small CU from his or her position. Unfortunately, a president’s departure for whatever reason at a small credit union often means the demise of that CU. Trying to find a person, on staff already or not, who will take a low-paying, few benefits, long hours, job with no future has become next to impossible. The larger credit unions on the other hand usually run like a top even when the CEO is out of the office a lot, sometimes for extended periods of time. In fact, in recent memory, when the boards of several very large credit unions unceremously dumped their CEOs with little or no warning, did those credit unions have a person designated by a written, in-place, succession plan ready to immediately take over the reins? No. Did this result in a crisis? Far from it. The credit unions under discussion here just kept chugging along, barely missing a beat. The really good credit union CEOs and their boards know that well-managed credit unions can run on their own momentum long enough to put a new CEO in place. Having someone down the hall ready to step in and fill a vacancy planned or otherwise, would be nice. There are many qualified CEO wannabes already on CU executive management staffs. They may be eminently qualified to fill the shoes of the departed CEO. They may not be. People change. That includes CEO candidates and boards of directors. Credit unions change, too. Depending on when a vacancy occurs, the person waiting in the wings may no longer be qualified. But another staffer may have emerged as more qualified. Will the original designee be told before a planned retirement that they have been taken out of the running as has happened in some credit unions? If yes, bye, bye potential CEO. Getting exactly the right new CEO is never an easy task even with a growing talent pool. But having an heir apparent could lock in a board from going out and taking an honest look (not just going through the motions) at the wealth of CEO talent available at any one time. Right this minute, for example, there are many extremely qualified candidates for credit union CEO positions eager and anxious to be considered. Will they be? Fact is, when looking for a new credit union CEO today, credit union boards have the pick of the litter to choose from. That litter consists of a number of excellent former credit union CEOs who are between positions, management staffers from their own and other credit unions, and from several related fields such as accountants and regulators. And, yes, like it or not, ex bankers who are proving to be some of the most effective CEOs in the ranks of large credit unions. Looking at some of the better credit union CEO positions filled in recent years, it becomes clear that a high percentage of these placements were made without the benefit of any succession plans. By the way, it is the same in many major, for-profit corporations. When their boards need a new CEO, they simply go hunting for the best person available wherever he or she may be at that particular time. Finally, if a succession plan is defined as having a pre-designated clear chain of command to keep things rolling along until a new permanent CEO is hired, I have no problem with that. But to worry far in advance over who will get the top job makes little sense especially the way things are changing so rapidly in the credit union world and knowing how much excellent CEO talent is available from multiple sources at any one time.

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Peter Westerman


Credit Union Times

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