The business community often is attracted to the larger than life type of leader. Carisma seems to matter quite a bit in the formula but ultimately a track record of success is important. If we look at organizations such as Microsoft and Apple, these are two great examples where the leader mattered greatly in terms of market perception. Shortly before Bill Gates stepped away from his role in Microsoft we saw a great deal of speculation as to what the future might hold for the company. Even with Steve Balmer at the helm it seemed that the market was concerned. The events that unfolded with this transition though proved that the organization was able to not only sustain its position but continued to thrive.
Apple is at a cross roads again with the prospect of Steve Jobs’ health getting in the way. I’ve seen articles over the past few days that expressed how the shareholders were concerned over the leave of absence and requested clarification as well as a clear succession plan. On the one hand it is easy to be so focused on one person due to their strong leadership and innovation, but it is hard to believe that all the past successes of a company is due to that one person. Investors in Apple’s case are smart to demand of the company an outline of the succession plan.
There are a variety of tactical plans that can be enacted when key employees become unavailable. Much of them depend on the nature of the absence. For example, a short term absence (planned or unplanned) can typically be addressed with a backup plan. Another type of plan may be due to emergency circumstances that cause key employees to disappear completely. This may range from the tragic to the practical. As such, we often see contracts that basically bound people to positions so as not to dash out leaving the company in a lurch. However, companies will have emergency plans to cover situations where death or injury will simply prevent those key employees from showing up.
I believe the type of succession plan that the Apple shareholders are looking for is one that is more strategic in nature. It is focused on ensuring that organizational leadership is not only transitioned in a smooth way, but that the company is able to maintain its success and strategic direction.
One interesting aspect that I covered in previous articles was how in small and medium sized organizations there is an over-reliance on people as opposed to strategies and processes. What is interesting here is that even in large organizations we find that stakeholders are at least concerned about the same issue as a matter of strategy and tactical approach.
Even within project teams the issue has to be addressed. Unfortunately very few organizations tend to address succession planning perhaps due to the temporary nature of projects. However, on large strategic projects there has to be a concerted effort to build a plan as part of the overall project governance framework to address succession. Within IBM we handled this in a couple of ways. One was by having an extensive backup plan for covering vacations, holidays, and illness. The second was through the management chain to ensure that when team members stepped out of the team, we had a strong on-boarding process to bring the new members of the team up to speed to ensure a smooth transition.
The process of transition is never perfectly smooth, however, it has to be at the center of our focus when we deal with key resources as with everything dealing with humans, change is always a constant.