Robert Maxwell

Andrew Hill

No matter how good Total’s preparations, the death of its chief executive Christophe de Margerie in a plane crash late on Monday will have plunged the senior ranks of the French oil group into an emotional, logistical and governance nightmare.

When boards discuss succession planning, they often talk about it in jocular-morbid terms, typically debating “what happens if the CEO is run over by a bus?”. But when such sudden deaths occur, it often exposes just how poorly they have prepared for this type of emergency.

The US-based Conference Board, in a useful note for directors issued last year, pointed out that while three-quarters of S&P 500 companies surveyed in 2011 had succession plans in place, only 83 per cent of those had put in place an emergency succession component. Given that between 7 and 15 US public companies are hit by the sudden death of their chief executive in any given year, the group suggested the fact that a third of large companies had not considered emergency succession was simply not good enough. 

So the revelation in FT Weekend’s interview with David Cornwell, better known as John Le Carré, that Mr Murdoch once lunched with the master espionage novelist is a delicious one. Mr Le Carré is no fan of the media mogul, telling one interviewer in 2010 (even before the phone hacking scandal engulfed News Corp) that his empire was guilty of “pretty horrendous manipulation of the media” and “enormous intrusions into our domestic affairs”.

But some years ago, he relates in the FT interview, he met the proprietor of The Times, after taking offence at one of the newspaper’s stories about him.