Real-life CEOs on what succession means to them
HBO’s show Succession is about to air its final episode, hopefully providing an answer to the central theme of the story’s four seasons: Who shall succeed media mogul and patriarch Logan Roy on Waystar’s throne?
The series-long query took new, sudden urgency at the beginning of the final season. With one episode to go, it’s still anyone’s game. Will Kendall, Logan’s firstborn from his second marriage and, at one point, heir apparent, take up the crown? Will his sister Shiv succeed in her machinations? Has youngest sibling Roman blown it? Could it be a wild card like Connor? Does cousin Greg stand a chance? Will Shiv’s husband, Tom Wambsgans, achieve the seemingly impossible? Or will conglomerate Waystar fall into new, foreign hands, leaving billions in the Roy family’s pockets but no control?
Succession’s tribulations add dramatic flair and intrigue to a delicate process that most corporate giants eventually have to face. The question of CEO succession has recently hounded business leaders like Tesla’s Elon Musk, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, and Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi before them. Here’s how they’ve tackled it.
Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman: “No plans to go out like Logan Roy”
Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman said he had identified three potential successor to his 13-year run at the Wall Street bank. “I definitely have no plans to go out like Logan Roy,” he quipped earlier this month, referring to the Succession character’s inability to clearly pick out a successor. Gorman plans to step down within the next 12 months but stay on as executive chairman.
JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon: “When I don’t have this kind of intensity, I should leave”
Gorman’s announcement naturally put the spotlight on another Wall Street veteran, Jamie Dimon, who’s been at JPMorgan’s helm for the past 17 years. He plans to keep going for at least another three years, or for however long he can: “I can’t do this forever, I know that, but my intensity is the same. When I don’t have this kind of intensity, I should leave,” he said at the bank’s investor day on May 22. JPMorgan indicated in a regulatory filing earlier this year that the company’s succession plan is underway and, for the time being, chief operating officer Daniel Pinto can step in should the need suddenly arise.
Tesla’s Elon Musk: “Succession is one of the toughest age-old problems”
Tesla CEO and Twitter owner Elon Musk recently found a successor to take over as CEO at the social media platform, but the succession plan at Tesla, a publicly listed company worth nearly $590 billion, is one that concerns shareholders. “Succession is one of the toughest age-old problems. It’s plagued countries, kings and CEOs since the dawn of history,” Musk mused while chatting to the Wall Street Journal this week.
Musk has yet to publicly indicate a successor at the electric car maker and has no intention to step down any time soon. Nonetheless, Tesla board member James Murdoch (yes, of the News Corp Murdochs, one of the families that inspired Succession) testified last year there is a succession plan in place, and Musk confirmed as much: “The board is aware of who my recommendation is. It’s up to them. They may choose to go different direction.”
One thing Musk knows for sure, he wouldn’t go down the Roys’ “keep it in the family” scenario. “I’m definitely not of the school of automatically giving my kids some share of the companies, even if they have no interest or inclination or ability to manage the companies. I think that’s a mistake,” he said.
PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi: “I’m still in the chair”
Indra Nooyi started facing questions about succession plans a few years into her CEO stint at PepsiCo, where she had started working in 1994 before getting the top job in 2006. By 2012, PepsiCo was facing pressure to work on a transition, and by 2014, analysts were asking for an update on that front. In a call, Nooyi explained that the company had it all under control but, she added: “Let me reassure you, at this point, I’m still in the chair.”
Nooyi’s confident response did not end the succession chatter. In the end, she stepped down in 2018, becoming one of the longest-serving female CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. But as the succession plan did not involve the elevation of another woman, her replacement with Ramon Laguarta felt like a setback for gender equality.
HP’s Meg Whitman: “Succession planning is absolutely essential”
In 2011, former eBay CEO and failed Californian gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman became HP’s third top executive in as many years. Whitman has been championing the importance of a well-crafted succession plan ever since, calling it “absolutely essential” at a 2014 Fortune event, and expressing a preference for internal candidates. “I promised the board, the next CEO of HP Enterprise has to come from inside the company, not come from outside and learn five different businesses,” she said.
A year later, HP split into two, and Whitman went with the HP Enterprise (HPE) business as CEO. By the time she announced her departure, effective February 2018, HPE had a successor waiting in the wings: president Antonio Neri, who is still at the company’s helm.
GM’s Mary Barra: “I plan on being here for a while”
Mary Barra became the first woman to lead a US automaker when she was appointed CEO of General Motors in 2014. On that front, she has no successors, as she remains the only female leader of a US car brand. And on her company’s front, there is no public chatter about finding her heir. “Don’t write me off; I plan on being here for a while,” she told the Detroit Free Press last year.
Disney’s Bob Iger: “Succession is pretty much at the top of the list”
Bob Iger represents a cautionary tale on what happens when a succession plan doesn’t work out. His failure to find a successor the first time around was seen as one his biggest mistakes as CEO. Iger joined the ranks of boomerang CEOs last year, when he announced his return at the helm of Disney, a company he had led from 2005 to 2020. His return came with a caveat: he’d only stay on for two years. No wonder then that “succession is pretty much at the top of the list,” as he said at a Morgan Stanley event in March, but he didn’t divulge further detail, adding: “It’s between me and the board.”
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