I’ve been interested in succession planning since my early years in Human Resources—and particularly in succession planning at the top of the house. Perhaps that’s why my novel, Playing the Game, begins with a CEO near death and the impact that has on the corporation. So I read with interest a recent article that dealt with how to cope with the death of a key executive. Of course, the most important point is to be prepared.
“What Would Happen If Your CEO Died?”, by Branigan Robertson and Sean Reis, published on February 2, 2017, on the always excellent TLNT.com, asks what HR should do to minimize the impact of the death of a key executive.
Here are the recommendations the authors make, along with my commentary:
1. Purchasing life insurance on high-ranking managerial employees
For most companies, this is a matter of balancing cost against risk. In my opinion, insurance will only make sense for some companies—typically larger companies, or those in which an executive’s passing could end the organization’s existence. For other companies, particularly where a successor is in place, insurance may not be necessary.
2. Knowing who is next in command for each critical position, including the CEO, to fill immediate leadership gaps
This is critical. Everyone should have a back-up, just as stage actors have stand-ins. In some cases, this will be a deputy or assistant to the executive. In other cases, power will devolve up the corporate ladder, and the deceased executive’s boss may need to act in an emergency. In still other situations, a former executive might be called back into the role. And in the case of the CEO, a Board of Directors member may need to fill in, if there is no executive the Board trusts.
The important point is that stakeholders need to know immediately who acts in place of the deceased (or incapacitated or otherwise unavailable) executive.
3. Having access to all critical information
Arranging for ongoing access to critical information is part of any good crisis management plan—and the loss of a key executive is certainly a crisis. Part of the issue is making sure someone has access to corporate information, such as server passwords, financial records, tax returns and payments, bank account and payroll information, debt instruments, shareholder and Board member information, key contracts and insurance policies, critical vendor and consultant contact information—the list goes on.
And each business will also have critical systems of its own, and all of these need a crisis management plan. What systems in your organization have only one key person with access to the data?
In addition to critical corporate information and documents, it is important to know how to access contact information for employees’ family members—at least one next-of-kin or emergency contact for every employee.
4. Dealing with emotions
The loss of a key employee will impact the morale of the entire organization—the more respected and liked the individual, the more the rest of the employees will grieve. And the more critical the person was to the organization, the more employees will worry about their future.
Other leaders need to recognize, validate, and overcome employees’ sense of loss—often when these leaders knew the deceased the best and are most devastated by the death. It is probably a good idea to bring in grief counselors (usually from the company’s Employee Assistance Program, if one is in place), to help the organization mourn the loss and move on.
5. Having a succession plan in place to speed filling the position on a long-term basis
Beyond the immediate need to deal with the crisis and keep the business running, it is important to get back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is if the position is filled or the duties of the deceased executive are otherwise distributed. The more planning done in advance, the easier this will be.
Is your organization prepared to lose a top executive?