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Emergency Succession Series: Leading A Company After The Sudden Death Of The CEO/Owner

Robert Deprez, Founder Deprez Leadership, 18 September 2012

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Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a mini-series from Robert Deprez, founder of Deprez Leadership, on the impact of a CEO-owned business upon the death of the CEO/founder. The first part can be viewed here.

The successor CEO cannot avoid the emotions that are present

Thus far, the wide-ranging and powerful emotions resulting from the passing of the CEO have been discussed, the most prevalent being grief, fear about the future, insecurity and lost mental concentration (view here). All of the stakeholders - employees, the board, the family, customers, suppliers and others - will look for and need immediate reassurance that the company is being led properly. This requires an assured and effective CEO at the helm.

In Western cultures, death is most often not discussed openly and people actively avoid it for fear of making others feel bad. This is particularly true in the business world. Acknowledging and addressing the fears, insecurities and mental preoccupation is essential to decreasing the emotionally-charged atmosphere in the company. This task cannot be delegated and must be addressed head-on by the successor CEO. 

Far too often business leaders give an acknowledgement and then immediately try to get the employees focused on the business at hand. In other words, “ignore or hide your feelings and get to work.” This is counterproductive in the short and long run. It will interfere with the processing of these powerful emotions thus extending their impact. It could also lead to people redirecting their emotions in unhealthy and counterproductive ways. Mild disagreements could escalate; anxiety, indecisiveness, reduced energy, and general loss of concentration can be prolonged. The lesson here is that when CEOs attempt to diminish the impact of a death by getting people to focus on their work, the impact of unaddressed emotions will continue and can manifest itself in unhealthy ways.

To lead a company through this period, the CEO must give permission to the employees to express their feelings, admit they are affected and not try to hide behind a “strong front”. Early on the successor CEO must lead by example and acknowledge and articulate that he or she too is affected by grief. The CEO must also meet individually with the senior executives, family members and others to empathetically listen to their concerns and offer reassurances. The new CEO must provide this assured leadership.

Being a confident and empathetic leader takes time and tremendous emotional energy. The successor CEO may be burdened with his own grief and his energy may be limited, or he may be unable to be the assured leader that is required. If this is the case, consideration must to be given to bringing in an interim CEO until the successor CEO is mentally and emotionally capable of leading the company.

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