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.
My first reaction to the latest news of changes at the top of the Murdoch empire was: did the shrink get involved?
Succession planning at family businesses is often full of unlikely twists and shrieking. After the phone-hacking scandal broke over Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspapers in 2011, Vanity Fair claimed that the Murdoch siblings had discussed succession with a “family counsellor”, partly in an attempt to smooth the process.
Mustang Mulally: the Ford CEO, in a 2015 Ford Mustang (Getty Images)
Alan Mulally has a reputation for being decisive, so his declaration that he has “no plans to do anything other than serve Ford” – crushing speculation that he could leave to run Microsoft – should probably be taken at face value.
But Ford’s chief executive has wavered over big jobs before – notably when the carmaker was trying to lure him to Dearborn from Boeing in 2006.
GM's off – and Barra's driving (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Of two immediately obvious facts about Mary Barra, chief executive elect at General Motors, the more interesting is not that she is a woman but that she is a company “lifer”.
To my mind, GM looks as though it is signalling that it has turned the corner following the trauma of government bailout, just as Citigroup did when it appointed career insider Michael Corbat as chief executive last year.
Ben van Beurden’s elevation to chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell doesn’t look that surprising to me. Granted, he wasn’t in the list of frontrunners, but a 55-year-old white Dutch male who has spent the past 30 years at the company is hardly a leftfield appointment.
Ingvar Kamprad’s withdrawal from key operational roles at Ikea, the company he founded, has more steps than the furniture retailer’s most complex product assembly manual. The question, though, is once he has built his legacy, will it hold together?
The latest move, announced on Wednesday, sees him step down from the board of Inter Ikea Holding, putting his youngest son Mathias in as chairman of the unit, which reaps the royalties from the stores and owns Ikea’s brand and intellectual property.
In saying AG Lafley is “uniquely qualified” to lead Procter & Gamble – again – Jim McNerney, the board’s presiding director, somewhat understates the case.
Not only was Mr Lafley one of P&G’s most successful ever leaders between 2000 and 2009, he has literally written the book on how he achieved the corporate turnround – Playing to Win, co-authored by Roger Martin and published this year. But the record of chief executives who return to the top job is mixed: while there are benefits to bringing back the former CEO, there are pitfalls too.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement as manager of Manchester United gives the management world another example of how to bow out when you are, frankly, getting a bit elderly.
On this topic, we now have four great templates – the Pope, the Queen of England, Warren Buffett and Sir Alex – each of which could be applied by organisations whose leaders are grappling with questions about the frailty and mortality of their leaders.
Warren East’s unexpected retirement as chief executive of Arm Holdings, comes at “an inflection point” for the chip designer, according to the FT. Which raises the question: why go now, then?
Andy Grove, former chief executive of chipmaker Intel, wrote in his book Only The Paranoid Survive that he worried most about strategic inflection points. The book is full of valuable tips about how to tackle such moments, but quitting is not one of them. On the contrary.
Pope Benedict XVI. Getty Images
How does the Pope’s decision to step down measure up against best practice in corporate succession planning?
Luckily, the Association of British Insurers – which issues regular guidance on governance issues – has recently, ahem, pontificated on this matter, recommending that companies improve their succession planning and have strong candidates ready to take over as chief executive.
A merger between Anglo American and Xstrata falls into the “what if?” category of corporate counterfactuals. Anglo rebuffed Xstrata’s 2009 approach and the latter is now itself in the waiting room for a takeover from its largest shareholder Glencore.
But as Xstrata’s boss Mick Davis told me and Helen Thomas last week, he still feels he could have applied some merger-magic to Anglo, which on Tuesday confirmed speculation that it would write down the value of its Minas-Rio Brazilian iron ore project. Mr Davis said he had “absolutely no doubt” that he would have been able to liberate a more entrepreneurial culture at Anglo, by devolving more responsibility to operational managers, as at Xstrata. Here are his comments in full: