Episode 54

Riding Shotgun: Best Practices of Successful COOs

with Nate Bennett, Ph.D.

March 17, 2022

Nate Bennett, Ph.D.
Professor, J. Mack Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University

Nate Bennett, Ph.D., is a professor of management and the faculty director of Robinson’s Executive MBA program. He joined Robinson’s faculty in summer 2012, after serving from 1999 to 2012 as the Catherine W. and Edwin A. Wahlen Professor of Management, as well as in a number of leadership roles, at Georgia Tech.

He has published in many widely read resources for managers including the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek.com and Forbes.com. He is co-author of two books, Riding Shotgun: The Role of the COO and Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals. Both were published by Stanford University Press. Additionally, his research has appeared in Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal and Journal of Applied Psychology, as well as other academic outlets.


The primary skill that a COO needs to be able to demonstrate is being unflappable.



[00:00:06] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: The COO is typically the number two executive in an organization. It’s a role that is critical and poorly understood. To discuss the importance, function and evolution of today’s COO, we turned to professor Nate Bennett of the Robinson school of business at Georgia State University. Professor Bennett is a prolific author and he’s conducted research and written in depth about the COO role. Where most C-suite positions are largely similar from company to company, he’s found that the COO role could be seven jobs. We dive into the COO’s personality traits and important skills. Professor Bennett reviews the COO’s most common potential pitfalls and how to best build the relationship between the CEO and COO. Next, we turn to CEO succession, which could include the COO as possible successor. We discuss why succession has inherent risks for any organization, the challenges that internal candidates face, and the role that search firms play, positive or negative. For young professionals, Professor Bennet encourages you to think about your career trajectory like rock climbing. Sometimes you’ll go up, sometimes you’ll go down, sideways, or diagonally.

Well, good morning, Nate. And welcome.

[00:01:28] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

[00:01:30] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: We’re pleased to have you at this microphone. You wrote a book, “Riding Shotgun: The Role of the COO”, which is arguably the best title and the most descriptive of what’s in the book, “Riding Shotgun”. Why did you choose to write, Nate, about Chief Operating Officers?

[00:01:49] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Yeah. So, well first thanks for the kind words. I started the book, gosh, it was 2004-ish. And what got me interested is, I had taken a role as Associate Dean in the business school. At the time, I was at Georgia Tech. It was the second time I had been an Associate Dean. And for those who aren’t familiar with business school structures, the Associate Dean arguably is the COO of the college. ,The Dean, the CEO is externally focused, managing relationships across the university, managing relationships in the business community, fundraising from alumni, fundraising from corporations. And the Associate Dean is expected to run the place. So I was noticing, in this second turn as Associate Dean, how different it was from the first turn, which had been at a different university under a different leader. And so I did what academics do. I went to the library. Well, at the time. Now I would’ve Googled, I suppose, but I went to the library and tried to see what had been written about number twos. And virtually nothing had been written about number twos. A light bulb kind of went off in my head. I had spent a fair amount of time working with my co-author on that project, Steve Miles, who at the time was at Heidrick & Struggles. And I knew he’d have access to executives who might really be able to help teach me about the role of COO. And so I approached him with the idea. He was excited about it and that’s what began the book. We did that. We spent a couple of years preparing that book and then Stanford gave us the opportunity in 2017 to revisit and update the book.

[00:03:28] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: In the update, you make the point that the role of the Chief Operating Officer is quite diverse and there are as many as seven different jobs that the COO could have or some combination of them. How did you determine that there were that many jobs? And which ones are the more common?

[00:03:49] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: The typology really emerged from the conversations we had. We interviewed COOs, we interviewed board members. We interviewed CEOs who had been COO’s. And from those conversations, the typology emerged. And so as you’ve pointed out, we identified seven configurations, right, maybe, or types, of COO’s. There’s the executor, who is what I described my role being, right? My job was to get things done. There’s the change agent, who is brought into the role with a specific marching order, to execute an international expansion, whatever it might be. There’s a COO who is essentially the other half. Somehow the CEO feels good at three things and not so good at three things. And so they use the COO to sort of be symbiotic and get all six things that need to get done done. There’s the COO, who’s the heir apparent. The company is using the role as a way to kinda stress test somebody who they think might be prepared to succeed the current CEO. There are instances where the CEO really wants a true partner and so they really manage as close to equals. I’m certainly not a fan of the notion of co-CEOs, but in this arrangement, they’re essentially approaching that status. In many startup firms, there’s a COO who actually is brought on board to serve in a mentoring capacity for the CEO. Mort Meyerson from Dell Computers is a sort of a classic example of this. Michael Dell needed some help from somebody who’d been around the block, right? And so Mort was a great choice to be COO to help Dell grow that business. And then there are CEOs who are put in place as a sort of a retention effort by the organization. So they may get the sense that someone’s beginning to entertain opportunities other places. The company hopes that, by giving them a substantial title and a substantial role, they’ll compel them to stay. So those seven types sort of emerged from our analysis. And you can quickly see that, one could be descriptive. Three could be descriptive. It could be that you start as one and then move to another and then end as a third, right? So there’s nothing sort of deterministic. As far as what’s most common, I think most common is the executor, right? And that’s really the sort of stereotypical model. The CEO is heads up, looking down the road, trying to anticipate the next turn. And the COO is heads down, driving efficiency, driving performance, making sure that the strategy is executed, right? And then it’s difficult to say, what would be the, what would be the second most. I think the one that’s the least prevalent is the retention play. Well, you could argue that it’s the least prevalent, because no one’s going to tell you that’s the reason they created the role because it seems sort of non-strategic and self-serving, as opposed to, something that’s really intended to help drive the business forward.

[00:06:56] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: I suppose each one of these seven configurations would require a different kind of type of personality. But is there a type of personality that cuts across all of these, COO needs to have a certain personality type?

[00:07:13] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: That’s a great question. It’s certainly, if you think about it behaviorally, the behaviors that you would expect to see in a COO who was filling each of those seven categories would be different. There’s no question about it. I think that the primary, I don’t know if I want to necessarily call it personality, but skill that a COO needs to be able to demonstrate, I think really is just being unflappable, right? I think that you can’t let them see you sweat, I think is really what it boils down to, regardless of which of those roles you’re trying to fill. I think you have to be a very quick study and I think you have to not be threatened by change because that’s really all your job is about.

[00:08:00] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: What are the major challenges, would you say, of a COO? Where would they tend to be tripped up? I mean, you mentioned some characteristics, being unflappable, don’t let them see you sweat, and sort of so on. But where do they typically kind of trip up?

[00:08:17] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: You know, again, an interesting question I’m thinking about sort of what are the patterns that I’ve seen, right, because there are a million idiosyncratic reasons why something goes south. But if I were to look at reasons that a COO gets tripped up that maybe are repeatable and maybe avoidable, the first one is, if they’re really unable to form the proper trusting relationship with the CEO, if the CEO and COO can’t completely trust one another, which to the point that the CEO really doesn’t care if it’s the COO answering the phone call or they answer the phone call. I mean, it has to be that complete. I think that’s the first place that a COO gets tripped up. The second is related, right, which is politics. So in many organizations, the COO is the first to the position, right? So the position has been created and filled with this inaugural COO. People in the organization resist that because they’re accustomed to being able to talk to the boss. They don’t want to talk to an intermediary. And the politics that resolved in that situation can be very difficult for the COO to overcome. Again, it goes back to the CEO has to trust and, we use the expression in the book, the CEO has to nail the backdoor shut. It was the COO sitting at the front door. Everybody that used to be a direct report is going to be looking for the back door. The CEO has to nail that shut. And then the other is, frankly, when the organization makes a bad hire. The COO job is a big job. And big, not just in terms of visibility or importance, but there tends to be a very broad range of responsibilities. And it isn’t always the case that somebody has had sufficient experience to really be ready to hit the ground running across that entire range of responsibilities. So putting someone in that position who’s not ready, I think would be the third. And then beyond that, Gary, I think you start to get into just kind of idiosyncratic unfortunate episodes.

[00:10:17] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You wonder about recruiting COOs, which as you’re pointing out, there needs to be a pretty, pretty solid relationship with the CEO, among other things. But how has recruiting a COO gone? Could you form any opinion by your research on that, Nate?

[00:10:36] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Well, it’s interesting. My favorite stories, really, you hear a CEO or a COO talk about the way the relationship or the hire was made. And really it’s dating before you marry. I mean, more than any other C-level position that I’ve had the opportunity to study, you have to date before you marry. And we have some searches where it isn’t that the search took six months. The actual conversation between the CEO and the lead candidate was six months long. Lunches, dinners, offsite days, Sunday afternoon, phone calls, right? I mean, again, you’re trying to create this seamlessness between these two individuals and this deep trust between these two individuals. You’re not going to get that from a day of interviewing, right? So I think that’s the most important thing, is to really give it sufficient time. And I don’t know that organizations and leaders are always disciplined enough to do that.

[00:11:42] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: We’d like to get to know you a bit better and learn about how your career has evolved. What was life like growing up for you, Nate?

[00:11:52] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Wow. Compared to these times, it sure feels like it was idyllic. I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. My dad spent most of his career at Polaroid in Cambridge. Concord was a wonderful place to grow up. So I feel very fortunate that my parents decided that was the place to be.

[00:12:12] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, what about your parents? Did they influence your leadership style and your career at all?

[00:12:18] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Well, I’m in academia. You could almost argue I’ve tried very hard to avoid being in leadership positions. I think that might be one way to think about it. Thinking about parents as leaders I think is interesting too, right, because I don’t know that I ever considered myself a follower. They were authoritarian. Well, they were authority figures who certainly were listened to, but I’m not sure I thought about them as leaders, if you can understand that difference.

[00:12:48] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: What about you? At what point did you start thinking about leading and leadership?

[00:12:53] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Well, it’s interesting. I think that in my earliest memories, again, it wasn’t really about an issue about wanting to lead, but it was about wanting to affect outcomes and realizing that if you wanted to affect outcomes, you had to be able to sort of get people to rally to your cause. So I never really thought about myself as seeking leadership positions, but I was maybe a little bit of a control freak. And so if the way I can get the outcomes that I want to have happen come true is to try to marshal resources. I guess that was sort of how it began. I never really thought about it from an academic standpoint until well into graduate school.

[00:13:37] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, you’re a prolific author. At what point did you realize that you enjoyed writing or wanted to write?

[00:13:44] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Well, I think it’s interesting that you make a connection between the quantity of someone’s writing and their enjoyment of the writing process. It might be just one of those things that you have to do if you want to be able to communicate your ideas. I was fortunate to go to school at places with teachers who required a lot of writing, who spent a lot of time trying to teach writing, and to sort of encourage writing. But what really created my interest was when I started learning more about organizations and just how fascinated I was by the differences between organizations in terms of things like their culture and between leaders in terms of things like their style. And so I was drawn to trying to understand that, and then if you want to share it, there are really two platforms for sharing: teaching and writing. And so I’ve tried to stay engaged in both. But I think it’s really an outcome of curiosity more than it is a love for the, I don’t. I mean, I don’t consider my writing a craft. It’s a chore.

[00:14:50] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, when you enrolled in the Ph.D. Program at Georgia Tech, what were your aspirations?

[00:14:55] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: I had decided that I wanted a career in academia. I mentioned my dad, he was a very hard working executive and I don’t want to suggest that he wasn’t around, because he was, but it was, I grew up in the sixties and seventies. It was a, a different sort of time and a different sort of model. And I had worked during my master’s program with some faculty on a research project, and I saw the amount of autonomy that they had, and I thought, what could be better than to have that sort of autonomy, right? To be responsible for producing work, but to be able to figure out how you could best run your life to produce that work. And so I was really drawn to it because I was, curious. I’m still curious. I still enjoy learning. But it was a way to earn a respectable living, but still maintain, maybe it’s back to my control issues, right, a way to maintain a certain control over my life and be able to be more present when my kids were young and that sort of thing.

[00:15:59] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: What do you think the top characteristics are for a top quality business school faculty member?

[00:16:07] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Oh that’s interesting. And I think it’s, I think we may be seeing it change a little bit, but the first thing that comes to my mind is that your job. I think as the faculty member in front of a classroom is to help students by translating theory into practice. It’s not unusual to hear students complain, oh, a class was too much theory, right? And a class can’t be without theory. I mean, theory is the reason why the practice is the way we suggested is, right? So it isn’t enough to just be able to kind of pontificate about theories of human behavior. You have to be able to translate those theories of human behavior into actionable steps that a leader can take to resolve a group conflict, to restore the performance of someone whose motivation has slipped, to manage politics and an organization, all of those things. So I think it’s being able to be that translator that’s really the important characteristic.

[00:17:08] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You took 20 students to South Africa. What was the purpose of that trip and how did that work out with all the COVID restrictions?

[00:17:16] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: I think the notable thing is not that I took 20, but then I got 20 back. I think that was the win for me. I didn’t breathe easily until the last person’s flight had landed at Hartsfield. So the international trip is part of our executive MBA program. It is the capstone experience in the program. It happens right at the very end of their studies. And the purpose of the trip is to sort of test the class by asking them to apply all they’ve learned in an environment with which they’re not entirely familiar. So while we do have some international students and while most of our students have traveled internationally, I wouldn’t consider their experience extensive. And it’s certainly rare that we have someone in the class that’s experienced South Africa, which is a fascinating country. We’ve tried these trips in many places, but we always find ourselves returning to South Africa because it’s just a wonderful place. If you think about the historical political, cultural, social, economic issues, how entangled they are, and how heavy a lift that country faces in trying to create prosperity and to lift people out of poverty, it’s an amazing place to be exposed to those challenges. So we go and we have a series of business visits, a series of cultural visits, and the students had a tremendous time. It really changes lives. Obviously we couldn’t go in ’20. It was great to be able to to pull it off this year. And Thanksgiving morning in the US was when Oicron was identified in South Africa. And the university kept trying to cancel the trip. I kept not answering the emails. And thankfully by January things had greatly improved in South Africa. In fact, it was much safer for us to be in South Africa than it was for us to be in Fulton County, Georgia. So that was very fortunate. And thankfully the university was willing to let us give it a shot and it was an amazing trip.

[00:19:11] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Boy it sure sounds like it. Good for you for leading it and carrying on with all that was going on in the environment. You’ve been studying COOs now for almost 20 years, I would say. Have you seen an evolution over that period of time, Nate? I don’t know if COVID has caused one, but just over the last 20 years, have you seen an evolution in the COO role?

[00:19:37] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: I don’t know that it’s necessarily greater than what might’ve happened in some other C-suite positions, but there’s absolutely been some change. If you think back to when we released the first edition of the book, the iPhone hadn’t been invented. It’s not that long ago, but when you think about the fact that it was before iPhones, that feels like forever ago. So, I think there are two things, right? The first is that, when we went back and revisited the role in 2017, the new stuff that was presenting a challenge to CEOs is they had to be much more savvy about finance. They had to be much more savvy about technology. They had to be much more savvy as a global citizen, right, because globalization really had another 10, 12 years to sort of grow. And so those were things that maybe wouldn’t have been critical for a COO to have as hands on an understanding of if you go back 15, 20 years. So there’s that. And then in addition to that, we’ve seen a number of things take place in the environment that are disruptive to operations. If you began again, 2006, that was before the global recession of 2008, so coping with that recession, all the cost cutting that took place, all the reconsideration of supply chain that took place. All of that was a great deal of work for COOs. We’ve seen a rise in a stakeholder perspective of the firm rather than a shareholder perspective of the firm. That’s changing the sorts of things that are on the COO’s agenda. Big data wasn’t a thing. And it sure is now. And a great deal of kernels of wisdom are in data if COOs can learn how to extract them and then apply them to their business. And then also there’s been an awful lot written about the millennials as a workforce. And so that changed the way people thought about managing their talent pool and managing careers. That has a lot of impact for COOs. So that’s all going on and that’s before we get to COVID, right? And you know what’s been more disruptive to operations in the past 15 or 20 years then COVID? So, it’s been a handful. That’s the easiest way to sum it.

[00:21:56] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yep. It definitely has. Any tips for CEOs on how they ought to think about managing a COO?

[00:22:04] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Sure. I think, again it’s interesting. Words really matter, right? And so you use the word manage. I’d almost want to encourage a CEO to not think about managing their…do you manage your spouse?

[00:22:18] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yep. Nope, no.

[00:22:22] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: you certainly don’t fess up to it if your strategy, right? It’s partnering, right? So it’s how do CEOs partner with the COO? And I think I’ve mentioned it already. The most critical thing is to establish and respect boundaries. What you decide to COO owns, you have to let them own it. And if you don’t trust them to own it, then you’ve got the wrong COO, right? I really think it’s that simple. It’s, how do you partner with your COO to provide the organization leadership in which all stakeholders can have confidence?

[00:22:57] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Nate, here’s a question about the board of directors that may be provocative, but it’s really not meant to be that way. And do you think that the boards really understand the role of the COO based on your research?

[00:23:10] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: I think that’s an interesting question. And I guess the way I’d answer it is that I think there are boards that don’t understand the COO role. I think the reason they don’t is because not all CEOs are as comfortable providing opportunities for the board to get to know the COO, whether it’s because the CEO wants to just control the room or whether the CEO might feel threatened by the CEO, COO, excuse me, or by the COO looking too good in front of the board. I mean, why would you create an opportunity for the board to be wondering, well, I wonder, what if we let the COO run the joint, right? For whatever reason, not all COOs have much board time. And that’s always frustrated me. And when I’ve had the opportunity to speak to CEOs about it, I’ve always tried to encourage them to make the CEO visible, to find a role that the COO can play in front of the board because, in my mind, if I’m the CEO, what I really want the board to understand is how well managed the company is, and that the COO is a part of why this company is well-managed and why we’re ready for whatever the future throws at us.

[00:24:22] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You wrote an interesting article about CEO succession that I’d like to cover now. And it’s somewhat related to the COO role in that many of the COOs are, in essence, in waiting for consideration for the CEO role. But that said, what gave you the idea to write the CEO succession story?

[00:24:44] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Well, thank you for reading the article and for mentioning it here. Similar story to what created my interest in the COO role. I spent a lot of time studying leadership succession because I think it’s a risk point for any organization, right, when you change leaders sort of mid-stride. And in doing the reading that I was doing, I realized that not much attention had been paid to the challenges that an internal candidate for the CEO job faces. And I anticipated that there were many. And so I was able to work with a dozen or so individuals, executives, who had been internal candidates for CEO jobs, some who got them and some who didn’t. I spent a fair amount of time interviewing them about their experiences and I thought their stories were really interesting. So I’m glad to have the chance to talk to you about it.

[00:25:39] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah, for sure. You make the point in the article about the role of the search firm in this process relative to the internal candidate. Can you share your thinking about that, Nate?

[00:25:52] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Yeah, I thought this was really, really kind of interesting. And I want to be careful, this is a small sample and it’s based on the reports of the internal succession candidates. So it’s their point of view. I don’t want to be paying the industry with a broad brush and I’m sure every search is different. But for these candidates, there were some themes that emerged consistently that I think are potentially troubling. And certainly if I was a member of a board of directors, I’d want to make sure these things were managed. The first was that search firms sometimes are positioned with roles that would seem to be in conflict. So part of their role is sort of working with candidates to understand and evaluate them. And as a part of that, they’ll include some coaching, right? They’ll want to have some real honest discussions about strengths and weaknesses and opportunities to grow and all that. And then they sort of turn around and talk to the selection committee about these candidates and they’ve sort of asked these candidates to reveal things that you would comfortably reveal to an executive coach, but not really reveal to someone who was going to be making a selection for promotion. The search candidate worry, is that, how can we be expected to be open with this coaching opportunity when we know they’re going to turn around and then use that to either support or discredit our candidacy? That just seems like a conflict in roles. So there’s no reason that has to be the way it’s done. If an organization wants to provide coaching to potential heirs, they can do that completely divorced from the selection process. And in fact, they should be doing it months, if not years, before a selection process is underway. So there’s just no need for that. The other thing that internal candidates shared about search firms that I thought was interesting is that they felt the search firms were very concerned that the best candidates be external. That was how they demonstrated they earned their money. So why did a company bother to hire a search firm if the best person for this job was in the next office, right? And so they felt that ,again, there were many disadvantages to being an internal candidate, but the search firm’s desire to really show that they’re worth their fee might be one that people hadn’t anticipated. Certainly I hadn’t anticipated until I heard it repeatedly from candidates.

[00:28:28] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: I’ve definitely heard that before myself. You make the point about, the list is quickly formed about who’s in the running for this, to replace a CEO. And you make the point about true candidate versus due-diligence candidate. Can you share your thinking about that?

[00:28:47] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Sure. So, yeah, you’re right. The minute that, well, it doesn’t even have to be announced. I mean, people will start to get a sense of when a CEO might be near the end of their tenure, either because the organization is performing badly, or they’re dropping hints, this is our last strategic planning exercise, whatever it might be. So the minute that happens, there’s all sorts of speculation, right, about who could it be and who might be next. Internal candidates fear being what’s called a due diligence candidate, right? So it’s someone who is there really as a prop. The company knows that the person they want is in office 16, but they don’t want it to look like they didn’t have a thorough search. So they need to have six names. And so we’re going to find five other names to put out there with the person in office 16 and there’s going to be theater. And then we’re going to name the person in office 16. Being an internal candidate for a search is psychologically stressful and it creates another burden or another potential distraction from job performance. Why would you want to do that for five talented people in your organization when you have no interest in making them the next CEO? I’m not sure that everyone anticipates just how much wear and tear it puts on these people for them to just be an actor in your play. We need to get away from that. So most candidates or potential candidates, when approached or when considering an opportunity, that’s the math they do. If there’s a front runner, I’m not interested, right? And I think that’s potentially damaging to the search process. Want to have a rigorous search, frankly, even if you have a favorite don’t you think they would show better and think harder and prepare more if they knew there were serious internal candidates? They would. But if they know the internal candidates are just there to play a role, it doesn’t require them to work harder, right? It’s analogous to the star quarterback in spring training, right, or summer football, right? Is there somebody there that really is challenging them for their job?

[00:31:04] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Inherent in what you’re saying is there is a higher level of scrutiny on the internal candidate. And reading the article, the suggestion was that they felt, the internal candidates felt, there wasn’t actually a level playing field relative to the external candidate. Was my reading of that correct,

[00:31:22] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Nate?

Yeah, that’s right. I think that anyone who’s been in an organization a long time, and long is more than 8, 10 years, they’ve had conflicts with people, they’ve made mistakes. That track record is visible to everybody because they were witness to it, right? External candidates don’t bring that baggage with them to the process. Even though search firms and others will dig around their networks to try to understand everything they can about the history of an external candidate, the fact is they have much more control over the narrative they present to the selection committee than an internal candidate. And it can make it very difficult for an internal candidate to show as well because people have just had a much longer ability to observe them. If you want to evaluate somebody based on their worst day, they’ve given you many more opportunities to see what a bad day looks like. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be an effective, wouldn’t be an effective, leader.

[00:32:26] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Let’s take the case where an internal candidate, in fact, is selected. What can they expect from the CEO in terms of transition?

[00:32:36] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Well, I think clearly this depends a lot on the circumstances under which the CEO is leaving, right? So if the CEO is leaving in a scandal, the short answer to your question is, not much. And honestly that incoming CEO and might not want much because they’d probably be suspicious about the integrity of the information that was shared or the accuracy of the information that was shared. In a healthy process where there’s plenty of time to do what you might call a handing over, taking over process, certainly, you want to be able to spend as much time as you can with the CEO to sort of understand what’s created the momentum that the company is on now and how can that be protected so that, when there is this handover, progress isn’t slowed. It’s just like the handing off taking over in a relay race, right? Those runners want to be in stride, so that not a piece of momentum’s lost.

[00:33:33] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: It feels like if you’re an internal candidate and you’ve lost, that commonly, that person would leave the company. Did your research show, is there any way that the company could in fact keep these candidates that did not win?

[00:33:48] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Yes, I think there is. First of all it is the case that many leave. Now, it isn’t like they leave the same day that the announcement is made, right? But they figure, okay, the company has demonstrated to me that I have hit ceiling here. And so if I want to grow, it’s time to look someplace else. Now, that’s going to, again, depend on the executive. If you’re a 58 year old executive and you’re within a few years of retirement anyway, then maybe you’re content to help the new CEO keep things moving forward. The way to keep someone is you’ve got to paint a future for them at the company that’s more enticing than the future they see somewhere else. You have to convince them the grass is greener on this side of the fence even though they didn’t get that CEO job. This is not easy, right, because the incoming CEO may not be invested in this person at all, right? And any executive is probably going to understand that. So the company may come to me and say, we’ve decided to go another direction, but we really hope that you’ll stay and we’d really like for you, as you stay, to take on this special project. Okay. I hear you. Thank you. But when the new CEO comes, all bets are off. Now the flip side of that is, if I’m the incoming CEO and I realize that there’s talent at that company that I want to keep or that I at least need for my first 6, 12, 18, 24 months, they need to get on the phone quick and figure out ways to compel those people to stay. Because otherwise, they need to just to recognize that these folks have sort of been embarrassed. And you don’t want to keep going to work someplace where you feel like you’ve been embarrassed. I wasn’t good enough for that job. That’s not a good way to feel when you go into work.

[00:35:48] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Nate, this has been a terrific interview. We very much appreciate your time. I have one last question, if I could,.We have in the audience, what I would think of as up and coming, upwardly mobile leaders. What advice do you give to an up and coming leader?

[00:36:04] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Wow. That’s a big question. So, I think the first thing is probably pretty obvious, particularly coming from someone who’s a professor, right, which is to just keep learning. Investing in yourself is probably the best way that you can spend time. So don’t ever stop doing that. I think the other thing that might not be as intuitive is to understand how careers and career progression has changed. I would imagine that for many of the folks who will watch or listen to this, they came up in an era where you could describe career progression as being a career ladder. In fact, that’s the metaphor people used, right? And you just kept climbing rung to rung. That metaphor doesn’t really work anymore. And we talk about careers now using the metaphor of rock climbing and emphasizing the importance of agility. And so if you’ve rock climbed or if you’ve watched a documentary about rock climbers at El Capitan or someplace like that, you quickly understand that they don’t just go straight up the side of the cliff face, right? Sometimes you have to go sideways to go up and sometimes you have to go down to go up. And that’s a hard way to think about careers when you’ve sort of had burned into your mind this notion of ladder. But going sideways, going down, different industries, different verticals, different functional areas. I mean, these are all ways that you can invest in yourself to create a more compelling value proposition for your next employer. And so I think that would be the more maybe substantive piece of advice, which is to think about your career goal as being at the top of a rock wall, not at the top of a ladder, and how can you strategize to go in whatever direction is required to get up there.

[00:38:00] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Nate, well done. Thank you again, just an excellent interview and your students are all lucky to have you as a faculty member.

[00:38:07] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Would you be willing to come to class and explain that to them?

[00:38:11] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: I’d be willing to come to class. I don’t know if I’d be explaining.

[00:38:16] Nate Bennett, Ph.D.: Well, it was a pleasure, Gary. I enjoy our conversations and, thanks very much for the opportunity to speak.

[00:38:21] Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You’re welcome. Thank you, Nate.

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