Over Labor Day weekend, Frank Blake could finally relax. After seven hard-charging years as CEO of Home Depot, he had announced in August 2014 that he’d retire and his chosen successor, Craig Menear, would take over as CEO on Nov. 1.
But Blake, a workaholic, couldn’t bear to take off Labor Day. So he spent the day sending handwritten notes to about 200 top employees to recognize their superior performance.
On Tuesday morning, Blake was stunned to learn that Home Depot’s computers had been hacked. Within days, his team determined that hackers had obtained 56 million credit card numbers.
Blake, 65, could’ve withdrawn from the crisis and put Menear in charge. This would have allowed Blake to escape into retirement relatively unscathed by this rapidly spreading fire.
But Blake refused to dump such a big problem on Menear. He also rejected the notion of keeping a low profile and letting his lawyers muzzle him. Some CEOs might stay mum for fear of admitting guilt and inviting lawsuits.
Placing himself in the customers’ shoes, Blake sought to reassure shoppers that the company would address its failings. He took full responsibility, promptly issued an apology and promised that customers would not be liable for any fraudulent credit card charges.
Blake continued to manage the crisis—conferring with Home Depot’s “incident response” team—while accepting the brunt of the blame for the data breach. This freed Menear to handle operational issues without the distractions that come with the spotlight’s glare.
Blake’s actions offer a lesson for longtime leaders: Even when you’re nearing the end of a successful career, coasting is not an option.
Every day that you’re in charge can bring new and unexpected challenges. You’ll earn even more respect by tackling them head-on rather than dumping them on your successor’s lap.
— Adapted from “When Your Legacy Gets Hacked,” Jennifer Reingold, www.fortune.com.