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Lesson from ‘The Godfather’: Handling ‘One Wish’ Requests in CEO Transitions

PODCAST PERSPECTIVE: In the May 2024 People + Strategy podcast, a veteran CHRO explains what a scene from “The Godfather” can teach HR executives about how to navigate a particularly delicate aspect of CEO transitions.

Betsy Rodriguez, CHRO

During the famous wedding scene in the movie “The Godfather,” Don Corleone spends time sitting in his darkened office as a steady line of family and friends arrive to ask him for special favors or “pardons” to be granted in honor of this special occasion.

Veteran CHRO Betsy Rodriguez says she sees the same dynamic play out every time a new CEO arrives on the scene at an organization.

“I call this situation the ‘Grant me one wish’ requests, and I’ve seen it in both planned and unplanned CEO transitions,” said Rodriguez, the former CHRO at the University of Missouri and Colorado Children’s Hospital, during a recent edition of the SHRM Executive Network’s People + Strategy podcast.

“I’ve watched my colleagues as they seize the opportunity. They say, ‘It’s a new leader, it’s my chance to get something I’ve wanted.’ And often it’s a way to circumvent traditional decision or approval processes,” she explained.

However, in that famous movie scene, the Godfather is not sitting alone. Right alongside him is his lawyer, who is listening to the requests, consulting with the Godfather on what’s reasonable, providing historical background about the request, and helping the Godfather avoid bad decisions.

“I think of CHROs as that whisperer, telling the new CEO, ‘Be careful about what you’re hearing. There may be other context with that,’ ” Rodriguez said. “And so as CHROs, we really need to make sure that we prepare the CEO for that.”

Those grant-me-one-wish requests pop up especially quickly during unplanned CEO transitions, she said. And if the interim CEO comes from the current C-suite leadership team—or at least is well-known to other executives—there is an opportunity for those leaders to try to leverage past relationships to get their wish granted. Rodriguez says this is one more reason why newly minted CEOs should focus on listening first and avoid granting a lot of game-changing favors.

“The CEO should not make quick decisions, should not jump in and immediately initiate change, but should listen, learn from the organization, and think about what to do,” said Rodriguez. “So as CHROs, sometimes we have to step in and say to the CEO, ‘Whoa, maybe you want to take a seat for a few weeks, a few months, and kind of see how things go.’ ”


Other insights from Betsy Rodriguez on the People + Strategy podcast:

Succession plans must account for sudden CEO departures

Rodriguez was CHRO at the University of Missouri in 2015 when the school’s president suddenly resigned under pressure. She learned that succession plans need to take into account the potential for such unplanned power shifts. “As CHROs, we’re responsible for the succession plan … but do we include those ‘What ifs’? That’s a very different planning process than a very thoughtful planned succession,” said Rodriguez. “The biggest challenge is that you really have to think about who is the person for that immediate or that interim situation. … This interim person is like a fixer. They come in and they have to fix that immediate situation. And someone you’ve previously identified might not be the right fit for that. So I think you have to really think about that.”

How to decide on an HR career in private, public, or nonprofit organizations

Rodriguez, who has served as a CHRO in both private and nonprofit organizations, says HR leaders “need to think about their why” in deciding their career direction. “If your passion is the organizational mission and that’s the No. 1 priority for you, you probably want to focus on not-for-profit organizations, or at least a public institution or organization where it really fits your why, it really aligns with your passion. If you’re really passionate about HR as a career and you want to see how business and HR fit together and how that people strategy really is part of the organizational strategy, then I think you could be in either public or private,” said Rodriguez. “But I’m going to put a warning in here: There are less resources in not-for-profit. And I found that very challenging. I enjoyed that challenge, but it’s not for everyone because it can get really frustrating.”


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