The King is dead! Long live the King!

The orderly succession planning  recently announced at JPMorganChase stands in stark contrast to the unanticipated executive departures and botched successions that crop up routinely at many American corporations.  This contrast accentuates the dual nature of the succession/replacement issue.  A well-run company needs a contingency plan to ensure that there is a back-up in case of  the illness or departure of a key executive. It also needs a credible narrative to support a transition even when unexpected.  The need for this narrative becomes especially acute when a company suffers from a string of what are almost always unrelated senior exits, but in the marketplace are construed as that noxious form of negative momentum — the mass desertion.  Once established, this storyline can be very hard to eradicate.  Naturally, it strikes hardest in those organizations where much value resides in individual players — technology, health care, professional and creative services.

There are limits to the available mitigation strategies.  The research genius or marketer with true flair can have an enormous impact on a company’s fortunes.  However, there are some prophylactic measures available to head off the threat of negative momentum.  The first of these is to have agreement in advance about what you would say if a key executive left to join a competitor or retired unexpectedly and have a narrative that explains why the departure, while regrettable, does not throw the company off track.   This usually involves pointing to the strengths of the overall team and the credentials of executives moving into new positions.  This is hard to pull off convincingly in the heat of the moment which is why it needs to be agreed upon before it happens.

 The companion piece is for the CEO and his or her senior communications counselor to keep a quiet watch on the publicity generated about individual performers in successful business units.   Some executives like the limelight more than others, and publicity for the individual is usually also good for the firm in the short-term.  What communicators need to ensure, however, is that  there is a good balance of visibility amongst key executives both internally and externally.  Enlist lots of them in company thought leadership.  Reach down into the middle ranks for executive profiles whenever possible so that dark horse replacements, when needed, aren’t quite so dark.

No solution is fool-proof but a few steps like these can help deter the negative narrative.  Perhaps if Saul’s publicists had hyped their favorite Pharisee just a little less, the conversion of St. Paul would have been nothing more than an HR problem.

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