One of the areas of corporate governance that is receiving increasing focus by regulators and investors is succession planning. Succession planning is important at the board and management level and is especially challenging for community banks that do not normally have the bench strength to choose from a wide talent pool. Often the principal challenge is to incentivize potential successors to remain in a subordinate position while at the same time transitioning a CEO to retirement.
Integration of the Succession Plan
Corporate governance documents should be reviewed and revised if necessary to identify the appropriate members of the board that will adopt and administer succession guidelines. This is typically the governance committee or the compensation committee. The guidelines should be reviewed by counsel to assure that they do not create unintended expectations or rights that are not consistent with exiting plans and contracts. Employment contracts should be revised to clarify the obligation of senior executives to ensure succession development of identified officers.
It is not uncommon that a specific duty to cooperate and implement the succession of a subordinate according to an agreed upon schedule be made part of the contract. Position descriptions should support and facilitate an evaluation of the candidates’ potential for advancement. Further, term provisions should be revised to contemplate expected retirement dates. Short-term bonus plans are a particularly useful method to incentivize cooperation in the development of subordinate executives. A key metric in determining performance of a senior executive should be his or her skills in mentoring and developing subordinates.
Retaining the Next Generation of Bank Leaders
While the mentoring relationship is key, it is often the case that senior executives who are considered the likely successor for the next level, be it CEO, COO or CFO, are lured away by competitors who can offer more immediate advancement. This is sometimes due to the ambition and impatience of the junior executive but also the resistance of the incumbent. There are a number of legal arrangements that can reduce the risk of this occurring. In general, once a designated successor is identified, that person should be granted unvested stock or cash which will vest fully upon their promotion. This is a critical stage as the CEO and board must work closely together to ensure the candidate is prepared to carry the full responsibility of the senior executive. This could take several years and involves familiarizing the candidate with key customers, regulators and the board.
In the event the candidate is not promoted but an outside candidate is chosen, a succession plan agreement would cause a significant portion of the unvested benefits to vest and the candidate would have a window to determine if he or she would remain with the bank. This should have the effect of causing most candidates to resist any capricious impulses to forego the final laps on the succession track and make it more expensive for competitors to raid key talent. It is also the fair thing to do, as the candidate is not guaranteed that he or she will succeed to the desired position but is being asked to remain loyal and forego outside opportunities at the point in the career path where he or she is most attractive to outside companies. It also should allay any fears concerning the risk that an 11th hour outside candidate will be chosen.
Transitioning Retirement of the Senior Executive
For every CEO who has dragged his or her feet in agreeing to a retirement date, there are boards who refuse to accept the planned retirement date given by the CEO. This is human nature, but good corporate governance demands that specific provisions be put in place that counteract this tendency.
While the succession plan if properly administered should groom a successor who at the proper time is ready to replace the incumbent CEO, there need to be specific provisions that ensure that the incumbent is incentivized to facilitate the transition at that time. It is not unusual to execute a transition and retirement agreement with the CEO. The agreement would amend existing agreements and plans to include, among other things, accelerated cash and stock benefits, a lump sum payout of remaining salary, contract benefits and describe a transitional role for the CEO. It could continue health and welfare benefits. This would be in addition to any retirement benefits.
Succession planning is often neglected until it becomes a serious issue because of a sudden departure of a executive. Boards must work harder to ensure that the bank has a dynamic succession plan in place to meet the competitive challenges of the future.