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Corporate America's hit-or-miss approach to succession planning

GC succession is too often left to chance

Consider this: Approximately one-quarter of current general counsel in the Fortune 500 are now over 60, and recent SEC actions suggest that organizational succession planning for general counsel may soon become a question of legal compliance.

It’s no surprise then, that, as Julie Preng, managing director for the Legal Center of Expertise at Korn/Ferry International, wrote on page 34 of this issue, “transition due to succession is likely to be a hallmark of the next five years in corporate America.”

The question is, how prepared is corporate America for this trend—especially in the legal department?

In her article, Preng suggested that the answer is, not very. Too frequently, she wrote, GC succession is “ad hoc … left to chance or, worse, to urgent need.” As a result, “the company can be caught short, and the gap [caused by the GC’s departure] may create high risk.”

My own research confirms this. Over the past two years, I have spent more than 200 hours in conversations with women who report directly to the general counsel. When we discussed how well their companies do when it comes to following best practices in executive leadership development—the stuff from which effective succession planning emanates—our conversations can be summed up in three words: hit or miss.

If you stratify these conversations, you’ll find that the GCs’ approaches toward leadership development fall into four buckets:

  1. The approach is driven by the CEO and the company.

  2. The general counsel is committed to developing leaders and dedicates time and resources to them.

  3. While the GC is intellectually interested, he devotes little time and demonstrates little consistent interest.

  4. The GC avoids the subject entirely.

At InsideCounsel, we believe that executive leadership development driven by the GC is or should be one of every legal department’s most important priorities. Because we are committed to driving that conversation, we will continue to focus on these topics in the magazine, our website, and through regional and national events.

While creating a list like the R-3 100 (see p. 28) is relatively easy, the work required to engineer innovative programs geared to cultivating the next generation of leaders is a hard and tough slog. Our motto going forward is “move the dial or move on.” In that vein, we are creating an advisory board of GCs, deputy GCs, executive leadership development professionals and executive coaches to develop innovative curricula to foster the best possible next generation of general counsel. Hit or miss is no longer an acceptable option.

Lloyd M. Johnson Jr.

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