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March 1, 2011 | cwinters

Should Succession Planning Be A Communications Priority?

Succession Planning is a hot topic, with some of America’s Most Admired companies in the thick.

Speculation abounds about Warren Buffett’s successor, with general consensus being that Berkshire Hathaway can succeed in naming a potential new CEO, but that Buffett couldn’t be replaced. The communication about identification of successors, “should Buffett need one” are presumably about Buffett’s age…and perhaps a bit of a reaction to all of the emphasis on succession planning due to recent photos of a frail, thin Steve Jobs (who missed Apple’s annual meeting) entering a cancer clinic.

In contrast, it would seem that discussion of a successor at Apple might, unfortunately, be prudent, in the midst of Steve Jobs third medical leave in seven years. Yet Apple’s shareholders rejected a proposal requiring that Apple detail a succession plan. The company had opposed this proposal from the Laborers International – who has been advocating for succession planning and disclosure of such for the past few years and made similar proposals to Whole Foods and Bank of America.

There is no doubt that succession planning is a Board of Directors’ imperative…but should it be a communications priority? Do your stakeholders need to know about your succession plans, or simply need to know that you have plans in place? This is particularly sticky when your leader is iconic, like Buffett and Jobs.

My two cents: stakeholders need to know that you have a succession plan in place, like Frontier Communications’ innovative board member/potential successor mentor program. Unless that succession is imminent – whether a planned succession like Gates or Welch, or potentially accelerated by a health problem, or scandal, like HP, the specifics of your succession plans need not be disclosed. It undermines the authority of the leader in place, and diminishes his or her relevance.

In a perfect world, a succession is planned with an appropriate transition period…the successor is named, has his or her “tires kicked” by key constituencies, and works closely with the current CEO through a transition period. By the time that transition occurs, it becomes somewhat of a non-event. But we all know that this isn’t a perfect world.

What to do when succession is forced, unexpected or accelerated? This is the time for amped up communications programs to support the new leader…to build trust, engage key stakeholders and create a leadership platform and profile for your new leader. Make the time. Or you may be dealing with another succession sooner than you planned.

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