CEO succession

Avoiding the unanticipated Domino Effect


Published on: April 2024

Written by: Michael Lehman

A large financial services company promoted a key leader into the position of CEO. Two of their peers were also vying for the top job. Almost immediately, the other two executives left the company. This created an unexpected leadership vacuum that cascaded within their respective departments, where no one on either team was able to step up into the suddenly vacant leadership spots. The lack of “ready now” successors required the company to look outside to replace those executive leadership roles, significantly disrupting their critical strategic transformation effort and creating additional chaos at the top of the company at a time when they could ill afford to slow momentum.

Similarly, a global manufacturing company promoted a key leader into the CEO role who lacked sales and marketing experience – an area where his predecessor had deep expertise. This expertise was a critical driver in the company’s success to date, and the gap at the top was stalling revenue growth and impeding the new CEO’s ability to deliver on the Board’s expectations. In order to fill the CEO’s knowledge gap, the company reorganized the head of sales and marketing role so that it was led by two executives instead of one. This unanticipated restructuring created confusion across the C-Suite and the rest of the sales and marketing organization regarding roles and responsibilities, which compounded their challenges in driving growth. The unexpected increased salary costs accompanying the additional executive role further impacted the bottom line, as well. 

What these two examples illustrate is the Domino Effect. The Domino Effect occurs when a star performer is promoted, and there is no “ready now” successor to fill the role they are vacating. With so much attention placed on getting a new CEO into the role, the Domino Effect can cascade down through the organization and is an often hidden and unanticipated outcome that can hinder even the most capable chief executive from successfully taking the reins. 

Assessing the impact of the Domino Effect 

Conventional wisdom and the literature suggest that CEOs sourced internally outperform CEOs that are sourced externally. For example, in Harvard Business Review’s “Best CEOs of the World” top 100 list, 84% came from internal promotions1. The majority of leaders who ascend to the CEO role are COOs, CFOs, divisional CEOs, and some are “leapfrog” leaders identified below the C-Suite2. A question that has not been addressed is: what happens to the performance of the company when there are no internal candidates for the new CEO’s previous role? In other words, what is the impact of the Domino Effect on company performance?  

To answer this question, we compared the S&P 500 twenty best performing companies3 with the twenty worst performing companies4 based upon percentage change in stock price.  

What happened at the Best Performing companies? 

Within the top 20 best performing companies, 75% of the CEOs were internal with 5 of the CEOs being founders of the company and 10 being promoted into the role. For their former positions, from which they were promoted, four were filled by internal candidates, and two were replaced with external candidates. Examining the leadership teams on the company’s websites, it appears that in three incidences, the role that the CEO vacated no longer exists. In one case the role was restructured and split into two different positions. 

What happened at the Worst Performing companies? 

70% of the CEOs at the worst performing companies came through promotions or being founder led (12 and 2 respectively), which is nearly identical to the best performing companies. All things being equal, one would expect a similar trend regarding the number of internal vs. external replacements for the CEOs’ previous roles from which they were promoted. However, we found that there were differences. Only three of the backfilled positions were placed by internal candidates and four were placed by external hires. In three of the companies, the position no longer exists, and two of the companies restructured the position. 

Understanding the impact: disruption and worsening performance 

The research shows little difference between the best and worst performing companies in relation to internal promotions and external hires for the CEO position. However, we do see more organizational disruptions in the replacement of the previous roles held by the CEO. A disruption is defined here as either the company was required to hire from the outside, restructure the role, or eliminate the role altogether. All of these create added turmoil and challenge for the new CEO as they try to move quickly to onboard and start delivering impact. 

We found that disruptions were present in 60% of the top-performing companies, compared to 75% of the poorest performing companies. While more research is needed to uncover the nuances, our research suggests that companies with a stronger bench for newly promoted CEOs’ previous positions have less organizational disruption and outperform those who do not have a strong bench. 

Tackling the Domino Effect before it falls 

While CEO succession garners the greatest amount of the spotlight in the press, among board members, and in public sentiment of the health of a company, our research underscores the need for CEOs, CHROs, and Boards to focus on the Domino Effect as part of their C-Suite succession process. That is, creating a bench of potential successors targeted specifically for the CEO’s previous role, and the roles deeper within the organization that could replace those who are being elevated in the company at the time of the new CEO transition.  

Consider these best practices to get ahead of the Domino Effect: 

  • Build the backfill into the identification process. When identifying potential candidates for the CEO, simultaneously consider who may replace that candidate for their current role. 
  • Focus on the role rather than the person. You may not be able to replace the next CEO’s position with one individual, but you may be able to replicate their skills with people who can excel in the role with complimentary skills. 
  • Expand the purview of success profiles. Create success profiles for the CEO and those roles that are likely feeder pools for CEO. Ensure that the success profiles are future focused rather than focused on what is important today. Business realities change over time. What makes someone successful today may be different than what is required in the next 3 to 5 years. 
  • Leverage the power of data for determining future success. As you look at your bench, use structured assessment processes to assess individuals against the success profile, reduce the risk of biases towards individuals, and determine their readiness to address the future business challenges that the organization will face. 
  • Comprehensively build the right bench. Look broad and deep within the organization when identifying potential successors. You may find those “leapfrog” leaders who would otherwise be overlooked. 
  • Continually refresh your succession slate. Given the cascading impacts of the Domino Effect, it is more important than ever to ensure your slate is up to date with viable candidates for higher level positions. Consider doing so on at least an annual basis. 
  • Ensure that succession is seen as a strategic imperative across the leadership of the organization rather than a single event of placing a new CEO. The CEO and the CHRO should own the succession process, the Board should be involved, and the focus should stay equally on the CEO role and the successor leadership roles throughout the organization. 

Finding, placing, and ramping up a new CEO is a momentous decision with big outcomes at play – for the CEO’s own success and the viability of the organization. If you embrace the opportunity to turn the Domino Effect into a strategic gameplan, you will be positioned both for accelerated success and impact. 


1 Harrell, E. Succession Planning: What the Research Says. Harvard Business Review December 2016 

2 Harvard Business Review Staff. November 2009. The Best Performing CEOs in the World. Harvard Business Review 41-57. 


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