Developing a succession plan is never easy or intuitive. However, this process of training and development at companies can get much more complicated when the departing executive is the company founder.
Thirty years ago, Chief Executive Masayoshi Son founded Softbank, Asia's largest internet company. Today, he is approaching his succession a tad differently: by opening a school to groom 300 executives, with the goal of finding a successor.
One of Japan's most famous entrepreneurs, according to The Wall Street Journal, 52-year old Son doesn’t plan on handing over the reins until he is well into his 60s. Japan's fourth-richest man has a lot at stake in deciding an heir: Softbank holds stakes in excess of 30 percent in two of Asia's most promising web properties—The Alibaba Group and Yahoo Japan Corp—along with exclusive rights to Apple's iPhone and iPad in Japan. In addition to being entrepreneurial in nature, then, Son's successor must be comfortable with technology as well as Softbank's place in the global economy—not to mention capable of competing in the already crowded technology sector.
Ninety percent of the 300 executives at Son's school—dubbed Softbank Academia—will be internal candidates, with the other 10 percent coming from outside the firm. Both the school and the company have some very clear goals in mind. The purpose of the former: to create Masayoshi Son 2.0. And the latter: to become one of the world's ten biggest companies by market capitalization by 2040.
Little wonder, then, that Son seems determined to groom a perfect successor, and is prepared to take his time to do so: while the class will meet every Wednesday, Son is reported to have said that "This is not a one- or two-month process. We are willing to spend 10-plus years."
While unconventional, Son is proficiently using his knowledge and experience to mentor 300 leaders. His way. With no deadline in mind, he has the opportunity to look for and mold the kind of ideology, strategy and business acumen that's in keeping with his management style. More traditional leadership and development programs are a given at most global companies today along with a detailed and—often—process-driven mentoring system. While this can have a positive impact on the pipeline of talent coming through a company, the act of mentoring doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Many companies have responded to this by developing cookie cutter programs that, while effective up to a point, can end up stifling innovation and bringing through "safe" candidates rather than seeking out the best available talent.
Some companies, however, continue to think outside the box, much like Son. In a recent chat with the Deputy General Counsel at Time Inc., Rhonda McLean, I got a glimpse into how she is leading mentoring exercises without holding executives to the gun. An excerpt:
"In order for people to get exposure to the executives regardless of demographic, race or gender, and be able to ask how to become a CFO or the COO, we started what we call speed career dating. We get 20 or 30 very senior people throughout our organization to commit to spend two hours where they each sit at a table. Junior people then can sign up for an eight-minute date with these executives. So while you’re not interviewing for a job, you are talking about your career trajectory, and asking questions on how did you get to do what you’re doing, what are your responsibilities, etc? We've done this several times with great success and it has become a great way to involve senior management and get them to see the diversity of people we have on the bottom who are trying to move up."
Whether Son's school results in a cloning exercise or a new generation of leaders remains to be seen. From a leadership development perspective, it is already a success. Because at the very least, Softbank Academia will develop 299 other executives who will get a rare peek into Son's influential—and inspiring to many—rags-to-riches story, and follow through with their own entrepreneurship. Just for that, Son deserves kudos.
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