The Lesson to Be Learned from Steve Jobs’ Leave of Absence

(Blog Post written by Don Tennant of IT BusinessEdge Mar 7, 2011)

 When Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced in January that he was taking an indefinite leave of absence because of his health problems, COO Tim Cook was in place to take over Jobs’ responsibilities, and the company’s operations never skipped a beat. That seamless transition raises a question that the head of every organization should be asking himself: “If I’m taken out of action, do we have someone in place who could take over just as seamlessly?”

 Rick Dacri, a human resources consultant and author of the book, “Uncomplicating Management,” cites the Jobs-to-Cook transition to illustrate how essential it is for companies to have an emergency preparedness succession plan in place. I spoke with Dacri last week, and he explained why such a plan is fundamental to business continuity:

The interesting thing is that with Jobs going out, the shareholders were saying, “We want to see the emergency preparedness plan that Apple has in place. Apple said, “No we’re not going to share that,” and they’re not required to do that. But people want to be assured that there is continuity in the business, so it’s critical.

 Look at the IT department, as an example, an organization so dependent on information and data to be able to make decisions, and without it, the business fails. Think about what happens if the top person in that organization goes out. So you need to have in place a plan that will develop credible successors who can step in, in case of an emergency. That requires a lot of education; a lot of rotation of staff into different projects and leading different projects; mentoring them along the way, and I always like internal and external mentors; making sure they join professional organizations so they can network with other key professionals.

According to Dacri, moreover, the organizations that are least likely to have an emergency preparedness succession plan in place are often the ones that need it the most:

The whole issue of succession planning in general, study after study show that very few organizations have plans at all – particularly smaller organizations, who are probably much more vulnerable than other organizations, because they have fewer people. If the director of IT goes out, he or she in all likelihood doesn’t have a readily available pool of candidates who could step forward. Those are the organizations that should be developing backup talent to step in.

 The key to emergency preparedness and all succession planning is not a chess game or king-maker game, where you move people around, but is more of a development tool to make sure that a team of credible successors is in place. It’s a lot of work up front, but even if the need for emergency succession never comes up, you’ve got a stronger, more vibrant team that can add much more to the organization. So it just makes good business sense.

Dacri said there are any number of reasons why so many companies lack an emergency preparedness succession plan, but the reality of business life is that there’s no good reason not to have one:

Companies don’t have the time or the inclination to do anything; or they don’t know how to do it, and therefore don’t do it. Part of the reason is they’re dealing with the situations that are in front of them. An emergency situation is a hypothetical – it’s something that, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen in the future. Or they don’t believe it’ll ever happen at all.

 In an organization, there are three things that are absolutely clear: People will retire, people will quit, and people will die. And ultimately, you have to plan for all three of them. For retirement, we have some planning ahead of time – we know it’s going to happen down the road. The quitting and the dying, we just never know.

 When you lose somebody because of a disability that’s unexpected – someone has a heart attack, for example – it can put an organization into crisis. So you need a person who can quickly take charge, someone who can handle crisis and is cool under pressure; a clear, logical thinker; an excellent communicator; someone who knows where everything is.

Even though it tends to be a tough pill for the CEO to swallow, Dacri noted, he or she is the one who has to be the driver of the plan:

In organizations where HR comes to me and says, “We really need some help doing this,” I try to be clear that the CEO has to champion it. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a number of CEOs about succession planning over the years, and what I find, in general, is that either they don’t have time to do it, they don’t want to deal with the issue, or they haven’t really spent much time thinking about it at all. If you lack confidence and you’re a bit insecure, when you’re developing a successor, the thought of someone being ready to sit in your chair is a difficult one. Even if you have confidence and you do feel secure, just having to think about the prospect that there will be a time when you are no longer in the picture is difficult for people to do.

 If I was the CEO of a small organization, I’d bring it up with my senior management team. Most organizations have an annual strategic plan. This should just be a piece of it. If the CEO begins to have that conversation, the rest of the organization will recognize the importance of it. They shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. I always say, “Start slowly. But start.”

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