I’m Dead. Now What?

When U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and some senior executives died in a plane crash a few years ago, I remember thinking, “Those CEOs better have good succession plans.”

I’ve wondered what would happen if I got hit by a bus. I’ve asked myself who would take over. But I’ve also considered some less obvious points, such as what knowledge I possess that no one else has. And can a transition at the top lead to defections of key employees?

Left unchecked, these kinds of issues can plague a company when a CEO suddenly dies. If you don’t have a smooth, well-oiled plan in place, then the worst sides of ambitious people can rise to the surface and the politics can turn nasty.

Lay the groundwork

Every good manager plans for succession. One useful exercise is to ask myself, “If I were to leave this company within the next two years, who would move up as a result?”

At any given moment, I usually have at least two executives who want to assume the top spot—to take my job. I try not to tip my hand too much to indicate a favorite. That keeps them on their toes and avoids complacency.

They may think they’re ready right now, but I know better. So I’m always looking for opportunities to give my best and brightest lieutenants exposure to pieces of my job, from negotiating acquisitions to forecasting companywide profits to handling strategic planning.

It’s important to let my top people tackle these duties with no help. They need to appreciate the isolation that comes with being in charge. The best team players don’t always make good CEOs, because they’re so used to collaborating that they feel disoriented when they must call the shots.

In addition, I worry that even my most talented people lack the experience to run things. Other CEOs tell me they share this concern. So I figure I need to take steps now to arm my top people with the skills they’ll need.

‘Cascade mentors’ pay off

It’s a mistake to dwell solely on who will replace me as CEO. An equally vital question is who will step up when given the chance and move from middle to upper management. I might pick a perfect successor, but that leaves the No. 2, 3 and 4 people, and on down the line.

My solution is to establish what I call “cascade mentors.” I’ve arranged through an informal buddy system for managers at all levels to build relationships with more experienced mentors (who are usually one or two levels higher). It’s like a cascade, a trickle-down presence of mentors throughout the company.

That way, the next generation learns from my grizzled executive team. And our rookie supervisors are learning from managers a few notches up. Everyone has a mentor, and knowledge flows more freely among potential successors to all types of jobs. That’s good for succession planning and it’s great for morale.