From Warren Buffett to Steve Jobs to former McDonald’s CEOs Jim Cantalupo and Charlie Bell, history is filled with precedent on this issue. Despite the trail of cases, however, there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach for how to handle these situations. The when, how and what to do next is often handled on an individual basis. Without a manual to follow, this can leave other CEOs and boards in a quandary about how to manage their own situation, should it arise.
Among the decisions that need to be made:
- In what situations will a C-suite executive’s personal illness be disclosed publicly?
- How far along will it be disclosed?
- If disclosed, what will they say about it, and how often will they provide updates?
- How will they reassure shareholders and other constituents if they don’t have a great prognosis?
- At what stage should the board begin reviewing potential succession candidates?
In Dimon’s case, disclosure of his situation without details has led to speculation about the future leadership of the banking firm, as well as about the extensiveness of his illness.
Dimon said he voluntarily disclosed his cancer, that it was caught early and is curable, and that he has no intention of stepping down or even being sidelined to deal with it. Investors seemed to rally quickly to support his assessment, and, if Dimon is right about his road to a cure, the entire episode will likely amount to hardly a speed bump for JPMorgan.
But such situations no doubt can and have unfolded differently for other CEOs and companies. Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was much sicker from pancreatic cancer than the company or he let on before he died from it in 2011, no doubt because they wanted to protect the Apple brand and stock that was so tied in with Jobs’ own intellect and persona.
Many other executives have waited to go public until they could report good or better news, while other companies have made such disclosures only upon the CEO’s death.
“I think they either don’t want to admit they are ill because it will cause concern for the company, or … they don’t disclose it because they don’t have a succession plan in place,” Lex Perryman, a management expert at the University of Washington, told the Times.
But mega-financier Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, disclosed in the spring of 2012 that he had prostate cancer. And former Intel CEO Andy Grove went public in 1996 about his own prostate cancer in a startling first-person essay in Fortune.
In any event, Dimon’s health scare should serve as a reminder to other CEOs and business owners to review both their internal policies, as well as their directors' and officers' insurance policies.
Nothing can create fears among corporate constituents about the company’s future leadership more quickly than disclosure of a crippling illness in the CEO. Because it can come on suddenly, such news can be much more damaging than, say, a garden-variety decline in job performance.
Illness is a by-product of life, and however difficult or emotional the conversation, the business issues surrounding the topic should be regularly discussed.