Of all of the roles within a modern corporation, the role of chief executive probably ranks as 'the most important'. Although the board carries the ultimate responsibility for the performance of the company, the chief executive is the standard bearer—they hold and cast the company's vision. The chief executive is also accountable to the board for the implementation of the company's strategy. Consequently, the role is crucial to the long-term performance of the company—an unexpected departure can leave a company floundering while a replacement is sought.
Succession plans are an appropriate tool to mitigate risks associated with the departure of a key executive. However, they are not normally this prescriptive ("chairman...has taken over as CEO in accordance with the company's succession plan"). To name the chairman in the succession plan does not seem to be appropriate. It is hardly in the best interests of the company. What about other executives or an external candidate? While directors filling roles temporarily—and even gaining a permanent appointment—is not without precedent (Ralph Norris at Air New Zealand being one notable case), the decision of the Coalfire board to pre-empt a contestable process seems to be somewhat short-sighted.
An appropriate chief executive succession plan usually outlines the process by which the board will approach the task of filling a vacancy, including how decisions about the appointment of an acting chief executive will be made and how the board will work with the acting chief executive in the interim. However, smart boards go further than this. They work hard to identify potentially suitable candidates from amongst the executive often many months (sometimes years) before the vacancy occurs. The Coalfire case is unusual in that the chairman was named in the succession plan. One presumes this decision was made when the board thought the chairman was the best and most suitable candidate. However, that decision was made at some point in the past. Whether the chairman continues to be the best candidate does not appear to have been tested. I wonder what the shareholders are thinking just now (*).
(*) My condolences to the family and friends of Rick Dakin at this time of his unexpected passing. This muse reflects on the decison-making and succession planning practices of the board both before and after the event of his passing. It is not intended to lessen Dakin's impact on the business nor the magnitude of his loss.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and the craft of board work; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.