177 Monday Musings: Total Recall
What makes companies recall leaders, either in management positions or on the board, after they have either retired or have been sacked before? Narayan Murthy, the venerated founder of the iconic software giant Infosys has been called back to be its executive Chairman. A few days ago, on the other side of the world P & G recalled A.G. Lafley as its chief executive officer after having retired from the company in 2009. The legendary Steve Jobs who was fired from the company he co founded, Apple, was called back to change its fortunes in 1997. Similarly Howard Schultz reentered Starbucks and created a success story. I am sure there are more, some which have worked spectacularly and some which have not.
These are of course high profile examples that are being talked about in the press, but everyday in organisations this issue gets played out in dozens, and without much fanfare. At its heart, such recalls betray a fundamental question, are some people more indispensable than others? One might couch such recalls in sophisticated glibness, but it boils down to a plea-on-the-knees to such knights in shining armory, 'please-save-us'. Its nothing but an SOS!
Where does that leave the celebrated HR process called 'succession planning'? Can it be really planned? Does a process, fitted with objective talent assessments, development plans, shadow learning, coaching and the whole nine yard of it, guarantee success for the incumbent? Almost everyday, vacuum gets created when incumbents hang up their boots or are shown the door in everyday roles and one is left wondering, if the organisation got it wrong. As the downward slide begins, there is denial to begin with, artificial patience is discovered in the name of giving time, because no one wants to admit that they messed it up, and finally when the stink goes out to the neighborhood, a suitable explanation or scapegoat is found.
But what if everyone genuine believed that the replacement was indeed capable to shoulder the responsibility, but the cookie crumbled in an entirely different way? What if a fool proof succession planning is actually a myth, a conceptual impossibility?
Yet another dimension to all of this is what is the message you are sending to different stakeholders. The customers, shareholders and the markets will be delighted because they draw comfort from familiarity and track record. But how do employees view this? Employees, usually at one or two levels below the incumbent might view this as the return of glass ceiling? They might view this as a delay in their own aspirations, which impacts their engagement and motivation. A sense of indispensability around one has the potential for alienating dozens.