Friday, September 02, 2022

Failing to Prepare for a CEO Succession

Source:  CNBC

Yesterday, Starbucks announced the hiring of a new CEO -  Laxman Narasimhan.  His former organization's stock (Reckitt Benckiser) dropped by 5% upon release of the news, suggesting investors believe its a significant loss for that firm.

As most readers know, former CEO Howard Schultz had to step in as interim leader of Starbucks several months ago, after the departure of Kevin Johnson.   The move represented Schultz's second return to the firm after his long tenure as CEO. On two occasions, Schultz had to step in when the firm was underperforming, and in both cases, it appeared that Starbucks did not have a successor ready to take over.  Why was Starbucks not prepared for these two transitions?  Moreover, given the problems Schultz has unearthed and encountered during his few months as interim CEO, one wonders if the Board didn't act quickly enough to move on from Kevin Johnson.  

These changes at Starbucks came to mind when I thought about a recent paper published by qresearchers David Larcker, Brian Tayan, and Edward Watts. They found that, "many companies are slow to terminate underperforming bosses, get caught flat-footed when a CEO suddenly departs, and often fail to appoint a viable or permanent successor."  Here's an excerpt from the Stanford Insights article profiling this research:

Succession planning is a taboo subject that tends to be neglected in many companies, Larcker says. One reason is that directors may feel awkward about broaching the subject with CEOs, as it suggests dissatisfaction with their performance. “It’s like coming home from school with a bad report card and explaining it to your parents,” Larcker says. “It’s not a fun thing to do.” And personal ties can make directors go easier on the CEO.

One of the most striking findings unearthed by the paper was that 4 out of 10 CEOs retain their jobs despite five years of worst-in-class performance based on return on assets.  Larcker puts this down to risk aversion. A CEO search can be time-consuming and expensive, and the stakes are high. One study estimates the cost of appointing the wrong leader at more than $100 billion. Bad picks can cause stock price drops along with stalled momentum, lost customer goodwill, and diminished trust within the organization. “There’s a reluctance to do it,” Larcker says.

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