In 1978 many observers considered Ford Motor president Lee Iacocca the obvious candidate for the CEO position that Henry Ford II would shortly vacate. Iacocca, of course, not only didn’t get the position but was fired. In explaining why he cut Iacocca loose, Ford famously remarked, “Sometimes you just don’t like somebody.”
In my work I’ve seen this dynamic time and time again. If the current CEO doesn’t like you or doesn’t want you to get the job, you probably won’t get it.
It’s critical for CEO candidates to maintain the trust and full support of the current CEO. If you can’t do this, perhaps you should look for another job. This may seem simple and obvious, but I’ve seen several executives derail their careers by making avoidable blunders with their CEOs. One that I witnessed involved a series of e-mails between a potential CEO and a friend inside the company. The first e-mail to the friend provided an elaborate description of “why the current CEO is an idiot.” The friend sent a reply. Several rounds of e-mails followed. Then the friend sent an e-mail containing a funny joke. The potential CEO decided that the current CEO would love this joke and forwarded it to him. You can guess what happened next. The CEO scrolled down the e-mail chain and found the “idiot” message. The heir apparent was gone in a week.
Even subtle comments that the current CEO construes as hostile or simply inappropriate can have the same effect. One heir apparent talked a little too openly about “what the company will be like when I’m in charge” and was eliminated from the running because the CEO thought he was being “cocky” and “acting as if he had the job before it was given to him.” As heir, you have to strike a delicate balance between projecting your readiness to be CEO and conveying your loyalty and support for the current regime. There is a fine line between an assertive leader and a cocky candidate.
A CEO candidate also can do everything right but not get the job...