Shareholders have every right to worry when a CEO is felled by illness, as Apple's owners are doing right now with the announcement by Steve Jobs of his latest time out for medical treatment.
Close observers of the company and its executive team seem confident in the company's bench strength. Nonetheless, there is still plenty of reason for trepidation. As John Tropman, a Directors & Boards author who has studied the implications of executive illness, wrote in our pages in 2008, "Boards and staff colleagues are left stumbling because, incredibly, there still are no accepted approaches to executive impairment."
In his thorough analysis of the organizational instability created by CEO illness, Tropman identifies three of the leading "bench" dangers:
• Office Distraction — Illness generates succession politics. As the executive’s attention wanes and his or her time becomes attenuated, others with an eye on the “executive prize” begin to strategize for power, influence, and possible succession. Major distractions develop as various executives and cadres strive for current influence and future power. The organization can suffer “mission attenuation,” in which employees begin to rivet their attention on who will be the ultimate “winner” rather than on the objectives of the business.
• Bad Decisions — Illness diverts decision making into backchannels or “non-responsible parties” (e.g., Woodrow Wilson’s wife; a boss’s support person).
• Uncertainty Reigns — Colleagues (superiors, peers, subordinates) experience problems similar to those confronted by the ill person’s family. Bosses do not want to intervene too soon. Subordinates do not want to appear overreaching but also do not want to delay intervention for fear of being faulted for undue delay. Peers are not sure what their role is, or could be, or should be, especially because they might be in line for succession if the ill person cannot resume her duties. Subordinates are perhaps in the most difficult position, because they are climbing up the power grid and anything they say is suspect.
John Tropman is a professor of nonprofit management at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and an adjunct professor of management and organizations at the university’s Ross School of Business. His co-authors on this article, titled "When Illness Comes to the Corner Office" [Third Quarter, 2008], are Robert Winfield, M.D., head of and a practicing physician at the University of Michigan Health Service and the university’s chief medical officer, and Penny Tropman, a practicing social worker, an adjunct professor in interpersonal practice at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, and a principal at Midlife Renaissance, a firm that offers wellness programs for individuals and the corporate market.
Here is a sobering bit of counsel that the three authors offer that should be taken under advisement not only by the Apple board but other boards that face this extremely uncomfortable, and not uncommon (AIG and Sara Lee, e.g., have just gone through this) situation:
Executive illness is a complex and important problem in the executive suite. The idea that one can rely on the executive to take the lead in the handling of his or her own illness is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that denial is characteristic of many illnesses. On the other side, “governors” — whether they be board members or staff colleagues — seem woefully ill prepared to take action.
Few options have been thought through and put in place to be readily exercisable. This gap creates and supports indecision and inactivity. Hence, we are faced with inaction on more or less every side, broken only by some dramatic event that forces steps to be taken. We owe our executives, our shareholders, and our organization’s stakeholders better than such stumbling.
Here is a slightly expanded excerpt that we ran in the Directors & Boards e-Briefing from "When Illness Comes to the Corner Office."