Looks like succession planning in private companies is just as bad as in non-democracies

I was fascinated by this piece in the Times about the impending retirement of Steven Ballmer as the chief executive of Microsoft. The piece notes that:

Succession planning is a delicate issue for many companies, particularly one like Microsoft, where Mr. Ballmer has been a senior employee since 1980 and chief executive since 2000, and his longtime friend, Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, remains chairman.

“Particularly for a person like Ballmer, who really is one of the founders, leaving is almost like death, so it’s extremely difficult to have an orderly process,” said Joseph L. Bower, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “It requires a very grown-up relationship between the chief executive and his board.”

Microsoft is certainly no dictatorship but does this remind you of the delicate question of when a certain founding president in southern Africa will retire?

The most interesting paragraph notes that: 

Developing a succession plan is one of a board’s chief responsibilities, but only half of companies actively groom executives, according to a 2010 study by Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance and Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search firm that is leading Microsoft’s search. Boards spend only an average two hours a year on succession planning, the study found.

One of the lessons here is that absent term limits, no one really wants to openly plan for succession (It’s obviously destabilizing, and worse, might result in internal splits and conflict). And the longer the incumbent stays, the harder it becomes to remove her; for those around them actually become invested in maintaining the status quo.

So in the end, the timing of a transition becomes not just the prerogative of the incumbent, but also of those around her – which results in the boards of private companies behaving more or less in the same way as Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s praise-singers in the military and ZANU-PF establishment. 

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