Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chairman Bill Ford on CEO Succession Planning

Alan Mulally became President and CEO of Ford Motor Company in 2006, and now, at age 68, he is closer yet to handing over the reins to the next guy.  Executive Chairman Bill Ford is personable but diplomatic about Mulally's exit - that is, he doesn't say much - but that is not surprising.  But in a sort of zen irony, by not saying much, he reveals a good amount.

Succession planning is arguably the most sensitive, complicated aspect of talent management.  More than 10 years ago, Jack Welsh engineered the hand over to Jeffrey Immelt, but the lead-up to it must've been years in the making and clearly highly classified.  Communications to external parties, like the media, must be exceedingly discreet, and so must communications within the company be as well.
But there’s something deeper at work here: the paradox of succession planning. It makes perfect business sense to any CEO to preserve leadership continuity, but laying the groundwork for a successor is an admission of one’s corporate mortality—a rude reminder for men and women whose egos, let’s just say, are not small. They won’t come right out and say it, but I’ve felt these dynamics at play during many conversations I’ve had with CEOs nearing retirement.
Reference: Ford to CEO: Nothing Lasts Forever.

It is not corporate mortality we're talking about here, of course.  It's personal mortality.  Although it's rather daunting, companies can last well past any human lifetime.  That reference is from a year ago, and writer Chuck Wardell's speculation was that the transition at Ford could happen by late 2013 (unlikely, at this point) but probably at the end of 2014 (let's see).

How does an elderly CEO hand over the reins, when letting go is essentially, deep in their unconscious, an acknowledgment that death is in the offing?  How does the Chairman himself engineer such a hand over, when his psyche, too, may be plagued by the elemental fear of the end?  

Steve Jobs was highly secretive about his medical condition, and concomitant leave of absences, not to mention the CEO succession plan.  His illness effectively forced him to reveal his secrets on both counts.  At least from what Ford shares in the above Bloomberg interview, there are efforts and plans within the company to succeed Mulally.  So, then, nature will not have to force much on any of the parties involved.

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