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Organizational Succession Should Be a Process, Not an Event

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 26, 2015
Updated: Friday, June 26, 2015

It Helps to Have Friends When a Firm Loses a Leader


David Goldberg, the CEO who had built Survey Monkey into a company valued at $2 billion, died of an accidental injury while vacationing in Mexico in May.  He was 47 years old, and the company had no succession plan in place.

A week after Goldberg died, the company announced that Zander Lurie, one of Goldberg’s long time close friends, and an executive of the sports camera company GoPro, would step in as interim executive chairman while a new CEO is being sought both inside and outside the organization.  

A New York Times story by Quentin Hardy describes some of the unusual steps Survey Monkey leadership has taken to navigate the search, keep the company running and pay attention to the morale of its 500 employees. The Times and other publications mentioned the personal popularity and professional respect in Silicon Valley and elsewhere for Goldberg, who was married to Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook.  Goldberg’s friend Donald E. Graham, former owner of the Washington Post, addressed the Survey Monkey staff about managing loss and described the experience of his own mother when she took over the newspaper after her husband’s suicide. The Times reports that 18 other executives including the leaders of LinkedIn, GoPro and Twitter, agreed to be paired with senior employees of Survey Monkey for a few hours of mentoring. Recruitment calls from rivals seeking to poach Survey Monkey talent augmented stress. The company management began regular surveys of its own employees to see how they were coping, and complied with their requests for more communication with more updates about the CEO search, customer growth and product milestones.  

Goldberg had led Survey Monkey since 2009 and was board chair as well as CEO, so both employees and board members faced unexpected transition. Lurie, who was a Survey Monkey board member before the interim appointment, has said he is not a candidate for CEO.

Business theoreticians and scholars emphasize the need for succession planning.  Walter Frisk,  senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review (HBR), writes that while interim CEOs are quite common, firms that appoint an interim CEO as part of their succession process generally don’t do as well as those that appoint a permanent CEO immediately. However, he writes, an interim CEO may help avoid old biases in the CEO search.

In another HBR article Joseph L. Bower writes that the most successful transitions happen when those involved realize that succession is an ongoing process, not an event.  Insiders and outsiders begin with strengths and weaknesses, he observes. Insiders know the company but may be blind to the need for change. Outsiders see need for change, but may not be able to foster it because they don’t know the company.  Bower suggests organizations need to nurture development of what he calls inside-outsiders—internal candidates who have an outside perspective. He also suggests individuals can develop themselves as inside-outsiders by careful review of what their company offers in training, mentorship and experience, examining their own performance, and broadening their knowledge. He thinks community involvement and getting to know people with different backgrounds can aid future leadership skills. Read Bower’s piece here and the Times story here.

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