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Robert Cannada on leadership succession

In 1944, a Life magazine photo captured the way you don’t want to transition out as a leader. In the photo, two National Guardsmen were carrying Sewell Avery, then CEO of Montgomery Ward, in his executive chair as they physically remove him from his office. Avery was a staunch opponent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and when Avery refused to sign a union contract, FDR ordered that the U.S. Army take over the company and remove Avery as the leader. We can all probably think about leaders who stayed on past their prime. Instead of leaving while at the top, they stayed too long and had to be asked to move on. These are sad endings to dynamic and distinguished careers. Randall Tobias, former CEO of Eli Lilly and Company and author of the book “Put the Moose on the Table”, noted, “All too often, in virtually all fields, leaders step down when it’s convenient for them without regards to whether that corresponds with what’s in the best interest of the organization they are leading.” However, healthy organizations realize that succession planning for leadership is critical and are proactive in systematically addressing this important issue. For example, one of the primary metrics revised by senior management at Dell Computer is bench strength. Their business units are responsible for reporting the percentage of positions with a success and with identified successors.

I recently visited with Dr. Robert C. (“Ric”) Cannada Jr., chancellor emeritus of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) about this important topic of leadership succession. Cannada is a native of Jackson, and while earning his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University decided to pursue a call into the ministry. He came back to Jackson and earned his M.Div., D.Min. from RTS, which his father, Bob Cannada, had helped start five years earlier. Upon completion of his training, Cannada went on to serve for almost 20 years as a Presbyterian pastor in Clinton, S.C., Little Rock, Ark., and Macon, Ga. In 1993, the leaders at RTS asked him to move to Charlotte, N.C., and open up a campus of RTS. Cannada was later promoted to executive vice president of RTS and from 2002-2012 served as chancellor and CEO. RTS experienced tremendous growth under Cannada’s leadership and now has seven physical campuses around the country and a pioneering virtual campus.

Interestingly, Cannada had the humility and foresight to discuss with the board when he originally took the position as chancellor that he wanted to have a succession plan in place. He shared, “We established a retirement age for me in this position and planned to hire my successor two years prior to my retirement.” Right in accordance with the plan that had been in place for almost a decade, Cannada stepped down as chairman on June 1, 2012, and Dr. Michael Milton took his place. This represented the completion of a transition plan that was implemented 22 months before. Dr. Milton was brought in and had the opportunity to work side by side with Cannada for almost two years before taking the helm. Cannada certainly could have continued on as chancellor, yet he had the wisdom to know that leadership succession is crucial to organizational health, and the courage to step aside and let his successor take over. Today, Cannada, at the request of his successor, continues to serve in a part-time capacity. He is also active in both local and international ministries including World Reformed Fellowship.

RTS has served an important role in this community and around the world in training tomorrow’s leaders. It is only fitting that RTS would show those leaders the ultimate act of leadership which is to plan and execute on a seamless succession in leadership. I am encouraged by the example of Dr. Cannada and RTS’ intentionality in this regard, and I hope organizations both big and small will recognize how important proper succession planning is to the long term success of the organization.


About Martin Willoughby

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