It was an old company, with a history that spanned parts of four centuries. It had seen great days, good days, okay days, bad days, and hard times. It set the standard for other companies. This particular company had a vitality and strength born anew generation after generation. The people of the company, clearly it’s most valuable resource, were an incredible mix that represented the richest blend of humanity found in any company, from any time, and from any place. It was a blessed company with a rich heritage and a bountiful future.
The CEO of the company, according to the original charter, was elected by the people of the company. They selected one of their own. The selection was by free election, so anyone in the company could one day seek the office of CEO. There were many companies where that could never happen. In these companies, you had to be born into a CEO’s position, fight to take the position from someone else, or amass a fortune and buy the position. In this company’s elections there were winners and losers, but folks were willing to tolerate that because they respected and liked their system for selecting their CEOs.
After the company went through the process of selecting a new CEO, and they did that every four years, there was a rich set of traditions associated with the changing of the guard. On the day when a new CEO took the reins of the company, the parties, pageantry, and festivities were a lavish celebration of the company’s past and a call to the future that their outlook was optimistic and hopeful. There was however, at least according to one observer’s thinking, a serious flaw in the process. As a company that always boasted about its rich resources and strived earnestly to make the most of them, he saw a terrible waste. Bothered by what he saw, he sought to do something about it. He talked to a few other folks of the company, and they all told him the same thing. They told him that he was fighting company politics, and that he was wasting his time. Undaunted, he kept right on beating the drum of his idea.
When there was a change in the company’s CEO, it was an out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new process. Whether the old CEO had served for four years or eight, it didn’t matter. The old CEO was out and the new person was in. The former CEO’s team was headed for home, and the new person’s leadership team was setting up shop. (The company had yet to have a woman CEO, but they were working on that.)
The change he wanted to make was powerfully simple, and it had the potential to be simply powerful. When a new CEO was to take control of the company, he, or someday she, could only replace half of the existing leadership team with new people. Additionally, former CEOs would serve as an onsite advisors for at least one year, or as many as two if requested to do so. Former CEOs could opt out of service if they so desired.
These ideas were so new and so disquieting to some folks that the man with the idea was ignored. When he wouldn’t give up, there were those who accused him of arrogant stubbornness motivated by nothing more than a childish desire for attention. When finally asked to explain his reasoning, he did so with poetic straightforwardness and a surgical accuracy that clearly made his point. Here is what he said.
“A number of CEOs have come and gone in my time. Our process for selecting a new CEO is a model of political ingenuity, a testament to the innate power of the human spirit, and a sustaining strength of our company. The ceremonial transfer of power is pageantry at its best, and it clearly befits the magnitude of the office. Nonetheless, it is extremely difficult to watch a CEO move from being the most powerful person in our company one minute to being unemployed the next minute. Sure he may continue to live within the geographic boundaries of the company he lead, but he is all but exiled from the process of leading it. By any thoughtful measure that as a tragic waste of experience and a terrible squandering of leadership potential.”
As the race for the White House in 2020 amps up, this story raises two very interesting questions. Is it time to put political rivalries aside and begin making better, more formal use of what has often been called the Past Presidents’ Club? Should past Presidents being doing more than serving as representatives at state funerals and smiling props for oval office photo ops when a new President is inaugurated?