Two major IT companies this week announced they will be losing their top executives as they usher in the new year. Red Hat's top guy Matthew Szulik has resigned due to family medical issues, while Cisco Systems' chief development officer Charles Giancarlo is leaving to take up a position at an investment firm.
In both cases, the news came as a surprise. And in both cases, there weren't any clear successors who had been prepped to take over the helm.
Under Szulik's leadership, which spanned some eight years after the company's former CEO Bob Young left in 1999, Red Hat grew from a virtually unproven market player into one that recorded a 28 percent revenue growth and 12 percent income spike in its third quarter fiscal year 2008.
The appointment of James Whitehurst, former COO of Delta Airlines, as the new CEO of Red Hat sparked a heated debate mainly over the fact that the executive is a largely unknown figure in the software industry. One observer said: "If there was ever an industry that has little or nothing to teach the software industry, it's the airline industry. This change heavily shakes my faith in Red Hat."
Would the change in leadership have gone more smoothly if Red Hat had taken better care in ensuring there was a clear successor, or even two, waiting in line? I certainly think so.
Ironically, in Cisco's case, Giancarlo was widely tipped to succeed current CEO John Chambers. However, as Chambers had stated he will not be leaving his job for another five years, 50-year-old Giancarlo said his "biological clock" indicated it was time for him to leave and try out something else. His stay at Cisco had stretched 14 years.
It's clear that putting in place a plan for someone to take your job can be challenging. It's a painful blow to one's ego to realize that someone else is just as capable of doing your job.
But, I believe it's a necessary step for several reasons.
For one, nobody is so great at their job that they're indispensable. Second, even if they were that valuable, they're certainly not immortal, and the day will come when they'll have to make way for new and younger blood.
It's been nearly a decade since I first began my career as a tech journalist.
As a rookie reporter back then, my main focus was to put in whatever work that was required to do my job well--and to do it so well that my employers will immediately think of me when promotions were due.
Ten years on, now with my own team to manage, my focus has changed.
Ensuring that the ZDNet Asia site continues to provide relevant high-quality and unbiased editorial remains my key concern. But, at the same time, I'm just as concerned about making sure there's someone I can pass the baton to when it's time for me to move on.
When I look for new hires, I'm constantly thinking about whether the candidate has the potential to be groomed as my replacement. Once the newbie has joined the team, I reevaluate each journalist's skillset and put in a "grooming" plan so each member knows where she (or he) stands in the team.
It's not an easy task, especially since each employee has her own strengths and weaknesses, and not everyone holds leadership qualities. For that matter, not everyone wants to be a leader either.
But it's critical that companies take the time to work out a proper succession plan for each department or team in the organization, to ensure it's business as usual when--and as soon as--a key player leaves. Microsoft, for example, implemented a two-year transition plan for Bill Gates to leave his day-to-day role in the company by July 2008.
While not all roles will require a succession plan that spans as long as two years, there should be a basic transition strategy for every critical position in the organization so that there's a steady stream of qualified people ready to step in when required.