Denise Kingsmill: Hasty departures create more problems than they solve

The dramatic taking of scalps at the BBC and in the US administration should remind firms of the need for a succession plan.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2012

Westminster is often described as a zoo, but escape to the Australian jungle via I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! seems an extreme exit strategy. Nadine Dorries, once a potentially interesting maverick politician, now joins the ranks of the saddos like Lembit Opik, George Galloway and Robert Kilroy-Silk who seek redemption in the treacherous netherworld of the reality TV show.

As yet, we have not had a corporate leader who has chosen this way out, but surely it is only a matter of time, given the clumsiness with which some recent departures have been handled.

The sudden exit of Steven Sinofsky, the man thought most likely to succeed Steve Ballmer as leader of the mighty Microsoft, is a case in point. It seems to be a prime example of a badly handled parting of the ways arising from a clash of alpha male egos at the top.

According to the New York Times, this conflict reached its peak earlier this year when Sinofsky, demonstrating the bad behaviour symptomatic of the discontent of a 23-year company veteran, refused to make a presentation at a corporate retreat and instead invited his colleagues to read his blog if they wanted to know what he was doing.

The abruptness of his subsequent departure from the company caused a 3% fall in the share price as well as a large hole in the leadership.

Some have speculated that the sudden disappearance of a rival may have weakened the position of Ballmer himself, who has already faced questions about his long tenure at the top of Micrsoft.

The flurry of executives at the BBC who have stepped aside or stepped down in an exaggerated crisis that, when boiled down to its essentials, seems to amount to not broadcasting one good programme and airing a bad one, demonstrates how a hasty departure can create more problems than it was meant to solve.

The original selection of a new director-general inevitably led to the loss of some good but disappointed senior internal candidates. The awkward attempts to deal with the Newsnight editorial and journalistic errors led to further losses of senior people, culminating in the departure, 'by mutual consent' of the incumbent George Entwistle after only 54 days in the top job.

All this could have been avoided if the chairman of the BBC Trust had shown some courage and confidence in his new appointee by standing shoulder to shoulder with him to face down the critics, while at the same time ensuring that a more robust system of editorial accountability was put in place.

The leadership vacuum that has resulted in a last-man-standing solution has left the organisation demoralised and vulnerable - and now led (albeit temporarily) by someone no one has heard of and who has little leadership or journalistic experience. The damage to the BBC's reputation may come to be seen more as a result of the failures of responsibility of the chairman and the Trust than of those who have, so far, departed.

Sexual misbehaviour leading to high-profile departures of corporate leaders and politicians used to be a British speciality but such incidents have been rare of late, possibly because where the parties involved are consenting adults, even the most salacious tabloid has difficulty in raising the scandal quotient sufficiently to provoke resignation or dismissal. However, in the US, adultery still has the power to shock, especially when combined with high office, military heroes and national security.

The sudden toppling of General Petraeus from his role as director of the CIA following an FBI investigation that uncovered the secrets of his private life means that, at a challenging time for US intelligence in the Arab world in particular, the country's main security agency is enmeshed is a scandal that is also having an impact on General Allen, who was the proposed commander of Nato troops in Europe. A puritanical culture, leading to swift and premature loss of office for two men whose work performance has not been criticised, may turn out to have far-reaching consequences for US and European security.

These days, many organisations have a process in place for identifying and developing people to fill key positions over time, but this is usually designed for a three to five-year transition. Few companies have a robust succession plan in place to cover a leadership crisis brought on by the abrupt exit of their CEO.

Succession planning at this level is sensitive and difficult, but it is probably the most important element for the board to address. An organisation can be thrown into disarray by the unexpected departure of its leader and it is vital to the stability of a company shaken by such an event that an emergency succession plan can be instituted rapidly.

Some companies have adopted a 'name in an envelope' strategy for a time of crisis, while others have a team approach, with designated individuals forming a management team to handle the interim period until a permanent successor is found. Above all, clear communication is essential to convey a secure and confident succession and to minimise disruption to the business.

Having the right leader in place is important, but no one should be regarded as indispensable, and it is the responsibility of the board to recognise this and to plan accordingly, especially in a crisis.

Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on

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