How Andy Morrison and Rob Stone created an effective succession plan at Market Strategies International Featured

8:01pm EDT September 30, 2012
Andy Morrison Andy Morrison

The topic of succession planning had been on the table for quite some time for Andy Morrison and his fellow co-founders at Market Strategies International. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the clock really started ticking.

“We started to understand, really around 2000, that as we matured in the business, it was time for us to start thinking about who would be our successors, really under the condition that we wanted the firm to remain independent,” Morrison says. “That is when we started to think about a succession plan and a succession strategy for our positions.

“But in 2006, we acquired a private equity partner, Veronis Suhler Stevenson, and that was really the second stage of succession planning because now we had an outside partner and a board of directors.”

As a component of the partnership, Veronis Suhler Stevenson mandated that Market Strategies look for add-on acquisitions, particularly companies that had younger leadership.

“That was a main part of the criteria for any acquisition, that we find young-but-seasoned management who would be in the business for a considerable period of time and could potentially become companywide leaders once they joined our organization,” Morrison says.

In 2007, Market Strategies acquired Doxus, a marketing and product strategy consulting firm, bringing Rob Stone into the fold. Morrison and the leadership team quickly identified Stone as someone with high growth potential in a leadership role and began grooming him in an executive vice president’s role.

In February, Morrison — the company’s CEO since 1994 — decided to step down, effective March 31, transitioning into the chairman’s role. Satisfied with Stone’s development, the leadership team offered Stone the CEO’s position, which he readily accepted.

That’s the short version. In reality, it wasn’t as simple as Morrison stepping down and Stone stepping up. Over the course of many months, Morrison and Stone worked together, along with the rest of Market Strategies’ executive team, to develop and execute a detailed succession plan that fell in line with the overall goals of the market research and consulting firm and to communicate it to everyone in the company.

Lay the groundwork

A good succession plan is a road map. It shows you where you need to go and what possible routes you can take to get there, so that you and your team can plan the safest and most prudent route for your business.

The preparedness of the leadership team is something that made an immediate impression on Stone when he joined Market Strategies in 2007.

“That is one of the factors that worked well in our favor,” Stone says. “Andy and the entire cohort of founding managers have always been very transparent in the company regarding what their plans are, what the timelines are — because it is critical for people to understand what the road map looks like so that these sorts of changes don’t come as a surprise.”

The transparency is the result of an ongoing dialogue among the top managers in the company. The communication among the members of the management team gave Stone and George Wilkerson — who was named president at the same time Stone was named CEO — an opportunity to have a voice in the decision-making process as the future of the company took shape.

“There is a level of unnecessary surprise that can mar succession planning,” Stone says. “The communication process, which allowed myself and George to be completely invested and present in the key strategic decisions that the company has been making, helped remove that. It also has helped us to be more available and present to the staff at large.

“It has always been clear to our people as to who has an ongoing voice in the management of the company, who were the people on the executive committee and who were the people authoring the strategic three-year plans.”

Even though Stone and Wilkerson were involved as members of the leadership team, their consideration for the top spots in the organization wasn’t automatic. Market Strategies conducted a lengthy search that narrowed the field down, first to an internally focused search, and then specifically to Stone and Wilkerson.

Morrison and his team initially looked at candidates both inside and outside the organization. They wanted their ideal candidates to possess a number of qualities, including areas of expertise that Morrison’s team didn’t possess, such as experience with international markets.

Developing a list of essential qualities that every leadership candidate must have is a critical component to the hiring process. Along with international experience, Morrison and his team constructed a list of other qualities needed to successfully lead Market Strategies, which generated $75 million in revenue during 2011, Morrison’s final full year as CEO.

“On the established leadership team, we knew we had to think about who the replacements might be, and that was very much spurred by the integration process,” Morrison says. “We knew we wanted to add younger businesspeople who had played a big part in running their own companies. They knew how to meet a payroll, they knew what it takes to manage a business.”

However, along with the valuable experience and skills comes baggage. Incoming leaders learn how to manage according to the rules of their previous company, and assimilating them can take a certain amount of deprogramming and reprogramming.

“The baggage manifests itself in a number of different ways,” Morrison says. “Their own track record can work against us. They might have had to sign significant noncompete agreements that create major barriers to them holding a management role at another firm.

“Age was another factor. Some other people we talked to had a similar age to myself and those of us who were already leading the firm, which meant there was no real advantage in terms of bringing them aboard in a successor capacity, since they were probably looking at retirement as well.”

Morrison never hired a third-party search firm, but he and his team did work with a consultant on an informal basis. The consultant helped Morrison refine the criteria for evaluating a leadership candidate, which ultimately led to a focus on internal candidates.

“He is a trusted industry adviser and ran one of the largest firms in the industry at one point,” Morrison says. “He helped give us the final insight regarding what he saw as the advantages and disadvantages of internal succession planning candidates versus external.

“When you add all of that up, it really did lead to the fact that we did have candidates internally who were going to be as well-qualified and well-positioned as we could have hoped for. That is what convinced me that we would be fine selecting from the people who were already managers in the organization, as opposed to people who were on the outside.”

Step into the role

The transition occurred at the end of March, but soon after Morrison and his team zeroed in on Stone as their CEO candidate of choice, they began to train him for his role. One of the chief responsibilities Stone needed to master is that of communication.

It’s perhaps the biggest difference between a leader and an assistant. The leader needs to oversee the entire organization, not just a piece of the pie. An assistant coach in football or basketball might only take charge of the offense or defense. He might manage a section of the playbook. But the head coach has to bring every player on the roster together and unite all of the players around a common set of goals.

That means the head coach, much like a CEO, has to know how to communicate effectively to a large audience.

In the six months prior to their formal appointments, Stone and Wilkerson ramped up their interaction with the entire Market Strategies workforce. It was a job with an added degree of difficulty due to the acquisitions the company had made in recent years, which meant a portion of the company’s employees weren’t originally members of the legacy company — including Stone and Wilkerson.

“That was one of the concerns for the people here who had been a part of the legacy Market Strategies for quite a while,” Stone says. “They wanted to know what this means, if anything, for our culture because the people now leading the company at an executive level are not the people who founded it and led it for the first couple decades of its existence.”

Stone’s primary location was another area of concern for employees. Stone is based in the Atlanta area and decided at the outset of the transition that he had no desire to relocate to the Detroit area. He would, instead, visit the company’s Livonia headquarters on a regular basis while primarily operating out of Atlanta.

“We had to ask ourselves if that really matters anymore,” Morrison says. “Does it really matter if all the C-level officers live in one place? We’re a smaller firm, but I had to ask myself how a Ford Motor Co. operates when their leadership is literally worldwide, with senior officers on every continent. In this day and age, if you haven’t learned to communicate worldwide, you’re in trouble from the get-go. You need to be able to effectively communicate worldwide.”

With modern communication technology, you can effectively run a business with executives, managers and employees in different locations. But it also creates an added set of challenges for someone in Stone’s position.

Most critically, if you aren’t there in person each day to promote the vision and strategy of the organization, someone else needs to be communicating in your place. Otherwise, you run the risk of complacency setting in.

It’s something that Stone has worked at tirelessly in the months since he’s taken over the CEO’s role and something that he’ll continue to work at as he fine-tunes his approach.

“That’s the danger in an internal transition, particularly if you’re running an organization with several lines of business,” Stone says. “To answer that, George and I are continually ramping up our communication, particularly to the next group of leadership candidates that we hire. We want to impart the best practices that we would hope leadership candidates would abide by. Their first priority upon accepting their new role is to get out there, talk to people, be present and available.

“It’s easy to get complacent. If you’re transitioning into a new role from another place within the organization, you can kind of become complacent yourself. You can take it for granted that people throughout the company know you, that the people on your team know you.

“That’s why, when you are assuming a new role like this, you need to put as much attention and care as is possible into reaching out to your people, getting your message into all of your various offices and locations.” <<

How to reach: Market Strategies International,

(734) 542-7600 or www.marketstrategies.com

The file

Andy Morrison, chairman, Market Strategies International

Rob Stone, CEO, Market Strategies International

Education

Morrison: Doctorate in mass communications research and bachelor's degree in English and journalism with a teaching certificate, University of Michigan.

Stone: Doctorate in cultural studies, Columbia University.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Morrison: Constant communication, which includes both talking and listening. Everybody emphasizes listening nowadays, but you also have to be an effective talker.

Stone: You have to be absolutely dedicated to the success of your clients and colleagues. It seems like one of the simplest lessons to learn, but it is one that is seldom learned.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader?

Morrison: You need integrity in every sense of the word. You need to be open and transparent in your communication, and deliver on the promises that you make to clients and employees. I also admire decisiveness. Make a decision and set in motion the steps you need to get to the result you want. That is something that is critical to me.

Stone: I would add that you need to convey passion for what you do. That is a big part of our job as leaders, to constantly convey the passion and excitement we feel to all of our teams.