As a large number of tech companies undergo CEO transitions one interesting element seems pretty clear; it is impossible to predict successors. Seems to me that, more often than not, the individual that was viewed as the “front-runner” didn’t land the top job. Naturally, there are various reasons why this happens. Perhaps the external world becomes jaded; the front-runner gets smug; the board decides to shake things up. Or maybe good old-fashioned politics changed the executive landscape. I believe that it’s almost impossible to be a succession candidate for too long.
My advice… when you’re considering a company change, fight for the role you really want. If you don’t land it think long and hard whether you should accept any alternate or “potential successor” role you’re offered. Imagine it’s permanent. If you can’t envision yourself in that role permanently then it’s probably best not to take the job.
Lets say you’re being recruited as a “potential successor CEO”. The board or current CEO says “be COO for a while and we’ll work toward a transition to CEO”. In this case I would say, “Buyer beware” because there are no guarantees. CEOs sometimes postpone retirement and new potential successors may come and go. And, consider this, if you enter as an “heir-apparent” there is nowhere to go but down (in terms of succession likelihood). Every perceived failure becomes a reason NOT to promote you.
If you're tempted to take the role you're offered (vs. the one you really want) also consider whether you will be GREAT at the interim role and if the skills needed for the job play to your strengths. For example, the typical “in waiting” role for CEO is COO yet these roles require significantly different skill sets and even contradictory personalities. And yet there is often the assumption that the COO is the next CEO. Many great CEOs don’t make especially great COOs and visa versa.
The problem with interim roles is that they have a way of becoming permanent. Settling for an interim role that you are not well suited may set you up for a failure; one that you probably will be judged for. And then you might never have the opportunity to excel at the job you really want. My 2 cents…hold out for the role you really want… the one where you know you can kick ass.