Leadership Succession

Ready for a Bloody Mary?

Posted Jul 22, 2013

“Bloody Mary” is a term for a leadership intervention inspired by a character in Rogers & Hammerstein’s musical, “South Pacific.”  She also appears in James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 book Tales of the South  Pacific. Bloody Mary is not a lead player in either story. Her wisdom, however, does inspire others.

One of Bloody Mary's famous lines is:

“You Gotta Have a Dream; If You Don’t Have a Dream, How You Gonna Make a Dream Come True?”

"Time for a 'Bloody Mary'” is our code for saying: time to refresh or reinvent your dream; time to move from being the team’s best player to being its best coach. 

Refresh or Reinvent Your Dream:

Our leaders tend to be future-oriented. In the absence of a compelling vision of that future plus practical steps towards achieving that future, they often hang on to the present. Hanging-on creates organization log jams for smooth succession planning. It often ends in unhappy forced exits.

Our leaders also tend to be effective linear thinkers.  The following is linear logic for a post-career life: 

“I like to sail and I like business.  I guess I will sail more and serve on boards of companies.”

A linear approach to post-career life MIGHT make sense. 

Another way to organize thought patterns is to engage in non-linear thinking.  Linear thinking might be described as “keep your eyes on the ball.” Nonlinear thinking might best be described as “keep your eyes on the ball and 45 degrees from the ball.” 

Peripheral vision degrades as speed increases (Strasburger et al, 2011). And speed seems to increase every year in business. The use of peripheral vision becomes less natural. People focus on "keep your eyes on the ball." 

Leaders need structure to engage in using peripheral vision under conditions of high speed. It is important because the greatest threats and opportunities for businesses and for careers are likely to be at the periphery of perception.

Two examples: 

Blackberry produces a business tool that once had the dominant share in the corporate mobile market. When Apple announced the iPhone, Blackberry leaders dismissed it as a minor irritant.  Apple produced electronic gadgets associated with young consumers. 

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (2011), 25% of all U.S. automobile crash fatalities are from side collisions. In Australia, Fildes and his colleagues report that side impact automobile crashes account for 25 percent of all injury crashes (1995). On the other hand, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 2005 study indicated that “head-on” collisions represent 2% of all traffic accidents.

Developing a cognitive framework that constantly focuses on “the ball and 45 degrees from the ball” allows for the development of creative non-linear plans. For example:

A high tech CEO now writes a column on science and technology in a magazine read by elementary school children.

One useful tool to help leaders examine 45 degrees from the ball is a valid and reliable career interest test administered and interpreted by a competent psychologist. We use the Strong Interest Inventory. The Campbell Interest Inventory is also good. Clients like the objectivity of the tool.

Another useful tool is to view selected Ted Talks (www.ted.com/talks) that provide perspectives outside the leader’s comfort zone. How might these different perspectives be of value in the business or in your post-career life? The Ted Talks need to be selected in advance and questions need to be posed.  

For more details about how to develop patterns of logic that follow linear and nonlinear dimensions, please review an earlier Psychology Today blog post:



From Best Player to Best Coach:

Bloody Mary is not the lead in the play.   She is the coach.  The skills required to be the best player on the team are not the same skills requried to be the best coach of the team.  Our leaders agree with this in theory but will only take practical action when they view themselves moving in the direction of actualizing their post career dreams

Much of our work in transforming leaders to coaches focuses around creating scripts. For example, there are certain verbalizations that are forbidden: “You Should……” and “If I were you………”  

On the other hand, we encourage the scripted use of certain phrases: “Tell me the options as you see it,”   “Have you considered……..”   “Tell me more……”

These scripts are often perceived by our leaders as arbitrary.  The more positive reinforcement leaders get when using scripts, the more likely they are to spontaneously integrate it into repertoire.

We make sure they get the positive reinforcement! 


Time for a Bloody Mary?

Bloody Mary is a structured approach to smoothing leadership succession using a cognitive behavioral approach.  There are two themes in the intervention and we recommend that both be done simultaneously.

Some CEOs prefer leadership succession to evolve “naturally” and without active intervention.  An increasing number of Boards of Directors are finding that inconsistent with long-term shareholder value. (Groysberg & Bell, 2013)

Time for a Bloody Mary in a first or second generation family dominated business is a high adventure drama.  It may be helpful to have one interventionist who is both a respected business professional and a licensed psychologist who understands cognitive behavioral approaches.  Another option would be an intervention team with two people that collectively have both skill sets.  



Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  “Side Test Information.”, 2011, http://www.iihs.org/ratings/side_test_info.html

B. Fildes, K Digges, D. Carr, D. Dyte, P. Vulcan, ‘Side Impact Regulation Benefits’, AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL OFFICE OF ROAD SAFETY REPORT NO. CR154, 1995. http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/Esv/esv16/98S8W23.PDF

B. Greysberg & D. Bell. “Talent Management: Boards Give their Companies an ‘F’” HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW, May, 2013.   http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/05/talent_management_boards_give.html

H. Strasburger, I. Rentschler, M. Juttner. “Peripheral Vision and Pattern Recognition.”  INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF VISION, 1,5,2011.  http://www.journalofvision.org/content/11/5/13.full