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Banking on Future Talent

At Bank of America, the CEO is driving the succession-planning effort.

September 18, 2003
Related Topics: Workforce Planning, HR & Business Administration

Brian Fishel, senior vice president for development and recruiting at Bank of America, doesn’t warm to the subject, but when pressed, he admits that, yes, he does have some nominees to take the place of CEO Ken Lewis should the unthinkable happen.

    "Clearly, the board has the say at the top," Fishel says. But he has several candidates waiting in the wings to replace not just Lewis but all senior management, should any or all of them depart. "Our theory is the more the better [in terms of promotion candidates]. We want to be deep."

    The reason why Fishel has a roster of folks on his replacement charts is that Lewis "is driving the process. He meets with all his top line executives for two hours during the summer, and that’s when they do their organizational assessments, talent reviews and succession planning. It really is Ken Lewis driving the commitment, the discussions and the execution."

    The candidates emerge naturally, Fishel says, because the company has "a very organized, thorough and disciplined approach to what we call talent planning" that links compensation to performance. In a leadership model similar to GE’s, candidates are constantly evaluated and reassigned according to how well they meet the targets and goals that are set for them.

    Fishel concedes that human resources executives can’t do good succession planning unless they have the support of a company’s chief executives. But human resources personnel also have to bring something to the table that the executives can’t ignore: a deep grasp of the company’s finances, goals and growth projections that enables them to offer ideal solutions.

    When dealing with the top brass, "you’d better know your numbers cold and what the drivers and levers of their business are in order to be credible. A good personnel partner should be anticipating their needs and offer them options," Fishel says.

But just how does one approach the indelicate subject of succession planning with top managers who, in their own minds, see themselves as forever young?

    "I personally don’t come out and ask that question of a leader--‘When you’re not here...?’ " Instead, Fishel says, he initiates a discussion about which subordinates might be candidates for cross-training, new assignments or promotion. He will also suggest candidates to assume subordinates’ positions from the replacement charts "and lead them through a conversation," requesting feedback. After credibility has been established, Fishel says, the subject of the leader’s own position may emerge naturally.

Workforce Management, August 2003, p. 49 -- Subscribe Now!

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