Bank CEO



Carter, long-time chief executive officer of a substantial regional bank system, appeared to have it all. He had over many years built the bank from a small group of suburban branches into a major, highly-profitable, growing business. Acquisitions fueled most of the growth, presenting regular challenges of culture and systems integration. The head of one of these, Ryan, was being considered as the top candidate to replace Carter as CEO within a relatively short time (Carter moving up to Board Chairman). However, what might have been a normal, smooth transition in past is occurring in the midst of major consolidation in the banking industry.

This engagement began with a couple of emails and a quite long phone conversation in which the coach learned some interesting additional background. Carter had previously used an executive coach, Ellen, to “help him think through a whole bunch of issues”. This interaction went so well that Carter hired Ellen to expand the use of executive coaches, and coaching more broadly, in the bank. Carter described Ellen as “real gem”, so much so that Carter and Ellen were married shortly thereafter.

Carter was unsure as to his ability to interact effectively with a fully online coach but he wanted to give it a try to keep this process completely confidential for at least “some initial period”. Reason undisclosed at the outset but obvious later.

Process Narrative

Carter   7:55 PM Nov 12

No idea about how to kick this process off so I’ll just think out loud for a bit. I gave you a brief rundown of where we are and how we got there in our phone call. My sense is that we are very successful and fundamentally sound. Immodestly but fairly I think, a good deal of this is due to my efforts and abilities. I am very good at what I do. Maybe not a “great leader” but certainly one of the better ones.

Despite my initial picture of things, I’ll bet you are wondering about why I asked you to handle a particular, short assignment to see how the process works. I wrote down a fairly long list of issues that we might tackle but decided to feed it to the shredder. Let’s just exchange thoughts for a bit to see what you can come up with.

Guess I could begin by being totally frank with you. This is a real step out of character for me. I probably have Ellen to thank here since she has made quite a change in me. Most of my executives have recently commented on this change but I just smile like it is a big secret.

The “secret” in this case is that I have absolutely no idea why I asked for your help. None. Also, I haven’t let Ellen know what I am doing here so I’ll have to depend on your being able to provide complete confidentiality for at least a while.

I have always been a gut-follower guy. Right now, my gut says to get some really outside input on whatever flows out of my thinking as we go along. Just between us, at least for the moment. I have an army of consultants and “experts” flooding me with information but I just get the most uncomfortable feeling that I’m not hearing what I need to hear.

Does this make sense to you?

Coach   9:33 AM Nov 13

Hi Carter – Well, I guess that I should say first how surprised I am with your intro description. I deeply appreciate your candor and you can certainly rely on complete confidentiality. It usually takes a few go-around to get what you told me out on the table. Great start!

And what did you tell me? Simply that you are not hearing something from your folks inside but that you have a gut sense that a very important message is not getting through. Not uncommon for the person at the top. Too many people will tell you what they think you want to hear, not what you need to hear. My specialty is the latter.

Could you fill me in a bit on Ryan?

Carter   11:03 AM Nov 13

Odd question since I barely mentioned him but here goes. Ryan joined us a few years back as part of an acquisition that seriously needed help. Ryan was a VP of some kind. His CEO was a real hard case and not very effective. Acquired the bank at a great price. First thing I did was fire the CEO (which truly made him happy). Who to move up to replace him?

After interviewing all of the acquired bank exec’s, I came away with a strong impression about Ryan. He just stood out from the mostly average others but no idea why. Even now, still don’t know.

Ryan is a very quiet guy and, I am quite sure, extremely intelligent. He carefully thinks before speaking. I like that. I recall that he came from an impoverished family in a big city ghetto somewhere. He struggled in school but finally caught the attention of a school administrator who, realizing his potential, fast-tracked him into a good school and college. Top of his class in all. Let’s see, what was his major? I’ll have to ask him.

No matter. I made a quick decision and gave Ryan the president’s job (equivalent to CEO in the acquired bank). He stumbled some early on since he is not forceful like me. Gradually though, he began to make good things happen. Completely under the radar. I hardly noticed until his division began regularly to hit the top of my performance reports. That’s where he has managed to stay, despite quite a bit of turmoil in banking generally. Story on this for another time. Maybe another issue for you to help me with.

Ryan is definitely my top choice to succeed me if I ever retire, and most exec’s in the bank know this. Lots of scrambling in the ranks to position themselves accordingly.

What else would you like to know?

Coach  7:11 PM Nov 13

Hi Carter – Thanks for this very helpful background. But something seems to be missing. How do you and Ryan get along? How does Ryan get along with his direct reports?

Carter   7:03 PM Nov 13

I had a feeling that you might ask this. Let me first say that I get along with everybody who works here, in a boss sort of way if you know what I mean. Ryan is extremely reticent in many cases. I have tried to encourage him to speak and to speak out but that just isn’t his style. He is also so smart that he cuts to the chase before the others even know what the hunt is about.

Whatever Ryan does, he is solidly effective so I have pretty much let him go his own way. I haven’t received any negative feedback from his directs but I doubt that they would tell me much at best. Communication in this place is mostly top-down.

Ryan might be described as a loner at work but he is quite different socially. He has a truly charming wife, just as smart as he is, I think, and a bunch of kids. She is very outgoing and this seems to encourage Ryan. He laughs easily and often, socially. Seems to have many friends, although none from the bank so far as I am aware.

Sure good to have him aboard in any case. Big load off my mind.

Where to next?

Coach   8:10 AM Nov 14

Without getting morbid, let’s think some about the mechanics and challenges of your departure. As I recall you noting, this event is certain but timing is unknown. Suppose you decided to leave the bank in a month or two. What might the process look like?

How might you prepare for a smooth transition if you had a bit longer to work with? What obstacles can you foresee?

What planning have you done so far to prepare?

Carter   1:15 PM No 15

Whoa! That really got me thinking. Seriously. Let me answer your last question first. The answer is: virtually nothing. I have tentatively decided on Ryan as a successor and Ellen has been working with him on some kind of leadership training or coaching.

I am assuming this question has a decent lead-time to work with, not me just keeling over at my desk one day. There are a bunch of organizational and people changes that I’d like to make if there was sufficient time. Take maybe a year, I’d guess. And if I didn’t have a year, which ones are top-of-stack?

This is such an important question that I want to get Ellen and our HR head involved unless you think that it wouldn’t be a good idea. I still want to keep our effort under wraps for a while more so I’ll have to invent some excuse. Maybe a bad dream tonight about dying? I never dream so Ellen would know I’m lying instantly. I’ll find something credible first thing tomorrow. This is something I want started tomorrow.

Any cautions or thoughts before I charge ahead?

Coach   8:51 AM Nov 16

Hi Carter – Definitely a good idea and moving ahead now seems wise. Has to be done no matter what. My only concern is how you explain this sudden move. There are sure to be rumors that you are dying or worse, otherwise.

What about explaining that this is something that has been on your mind for a couple of years and that you woke up this morning with the decision to quit procrastinating. Too important to the bank not have a plan ready.

Carter   12:14 AM Nov 17

Planning for my “retirement” some years down the road is underway. Big surprise: virtually everyone welcomed it and asked to help out. All except Ryan. Wonder why? Anyhow, Ellen was thrilled, as I thought she would be.

In any case, I have set up four task forces to work out something for their assigned area of transition by end of month. I have also started a rumor that I’m worried about getting hit by a delivery truck on my way to lunch at the club (these things truly are menaces) but the story seems to be getting legs as they say. I bring it up every chance I get. With a very big smile. You can indeed fool all of the people some of the time.

I have a very busy couple of weeks coming up so I’ll get back to you after I hear what the task forces come up with. Happy Thanksgiving.

Carter   1:01 AM Dec 18

Apologies for taking so long to get back to you. All four task forces did an amazing job of figuring out how a planned transition might actually work. Amazing to me was that many of their ideas echoed my thoughts closely. We really do have a lot of good management folks on board. Very reassuring. And I’m a bit surprised.

They are going to work on fleshing out their plans over the holidays so we can do a serious and thorough review early in the new year.

And Ellen and I are going to find some warm place and have fun.

Coach   12:41 PM Dec 19

This sounds like a wonderful outcome and a very important step forward. Quick question: Which task force is Ryan on (and what is its charter)?

This is something that he should be deeply involved in, and maybe even playing a leadership role.

Enjoy your warm sun. Looking forward to hearing what happens in the review.

Carter   1:55 AM Dec 31

Major crisis. Just got Ryan’s resignation letter effective immediately (he has 4 weeks of vacation that covers our notice requirement). By email.

I’ll get back to you when the dust settles and I find out what is going on.

Carter   3:04 PM Jan 21

Life sure does get exciting when you least expect it. But I’m getting too old for this kind of excitement. Here is the story.

Ryan has been planning to move on for at least a year. He was contacted quite a while back by a headhunter who started working with Ryan to find him a top slot on the West Coast somewhere. Apparently, he has been wanting to move west for many years. Never mentioned this to me, needless to say. I actually could have helped him out as I have dozens of senior contacts in banks way out there.

Ryan’s family will stay here until school is over to make their move a bit easier but they have already found a big house in Mill Valley. He seems to have received a very large sign-up incentive. Very big house.

So, as they say, poof. Whole new situation to sort out. In retrospect, your several mentions of Ryan should have tipped me off. Someday I’ll learn to be a better listener and not so much a talker. Someday. Maybe.

Our leisurely transition plan of two months ago has become most urgent. It is fortunate that so much vital background work was done before Ryan quit. Note: Ryan was not involved in this planning at his own request. Seems like his move was already baked in.

This process is going to take a few months no matter how anxious we are to get it all behind us. The transition plan drafts are largely excellent but need to be put into action carefully and thoughtfully.

I want to continue working with you but I want to get this situation done and finished first. I also want to bring Ellen into our discussions moving forward if you think that this will work. We are married but she always speaks her mind forcefully. And I sometimes even listen. Formula for a long-term marriage? Good thing she is tougher than I am.

Figure on my getting back in touch late spring.

Incidentally, I am really becoming very comfortable with a written process. I can’t tell you how many times I have checked back over the process record to refresh my mind on many points that I flew over at the time. On Ryan especially.

I’m going to call Ryan when he gets settled to congratulate him and maybe set up a visit. He has a very bright future and maybe I can help him somehow. I sure didn’t do much for him while he was here. I will regret that forever. Oh yes, I found out his college major: engineering, plus master’s degree. Top of class. I should have guessed.

Carter   10:10 AM Apr 2

Me again. Hope you haven’t given up on me just yet. Something new just came up that I’d like you to think about. Incidentally, I am very happy to have someone I can call on in these situations without any front-end stuff to delay us.

Transition plan done and even Board approved. Directors seem extremely pleased with this important step. Not sure I want to know why they are so happy but life goes on regardless.

Okay, here is what I am thinking about now. Being Board Chairman seems to be where they put you when your usefulness is about done. The thought of being “useless” after so many years of charging ahead flat out is truly scary. Well, sort of. Anyway, I am thinking of “moving out” into something entirely new. Maybe something part of the bank, or funded by the bank, or just something.

Some years ago, I worked with a consultant to see if and how we might start up a venture capital unit in the bank. This diversion was most enjoyable but ended up, as so many of these things seem to, going nowhere. We did meet several fascinating young entrepreneurs and got a good look at their ideas and almost-businesses. Fun stuff that taught me (again) to stick to my knitting (as us old-timers say).

I’m not looking to get rich since I am more than well off but think that I need a truly new challenge. Something that keeps the brain juices flowing.

I figure that I have at least a dozen good years of energetic work left in me. If the delivery truck guys don’t get me first. How does one go about finding something “new and interesting” given that I have been in banking my whole working life?

I have been doing quite a bit of travel lately – even got out to S.F. for a good visit with Ryan (who is in shock now that he has found out what his new situation is. Hint: a really tough challenge for even a smart guy like him. I am probably going to do some mentoring here since Ryan has opened up a lot now that he is out of this bank. This I am very much looking forward to.

During the long flights, I have tried to come up with some ideas about what-next and frankly my what-next box is still very empty. Lots of thoughts but nothing sticks.

So, let’s hear how you think we should move ahead on moving-ahead.