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Mastering the Monarch Succession

From Viacom to Facebook, creative enterprises often struggle with CEO transitions.

CEM_SONNENFELD_GSThe ferocious Viacom board battle between Sumner Redstone and his deposed, failed successor Philippe Dauman provides drama to rival the intrigue of HBO’s series Game of Thrones, not to mention Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or the biblical King Saul.

Dauman, despite years of Viacom’s collapsing stock price and declines in creative programming, tried to fortify his own troubled reign. He’s charged Redstone’s daughter Shari with manipulating her 93-year-old, frail father, who controls 80% ownership of Viacom and CBS. Redstone has held the Viacom throne and CBS’s controlling enterprise, National Amusements, for roughly 50 years, routinely terminating successor candidates. The saga is a timeless theme we see often in show business and parallels the long reigns of movie moguls like Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Lew Wasserman of MCA Universal and Paramount founder Adolph Zucker, as well as others in the media, including CBS founder William Paley and publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.

When I wrote The Hero’s Farewell, I labeled this CEO departure style as that of a “monarch.” They only exit feet first—through a palace revolt or dying in office, as commonly found in creative, personality-infused businesses, such as fashion, technology and media. Boston Consulting Group founder Bruce Henderson suffered one such palace revolt. Despite a tight autocratic rule, he faced multiple insurrections (e.g., the spinout of rival Bain & Co.) before his own ouster. Also leaving feet first, IMG founder and renowned super-agent Mark McCormack, died at 72 with no clear successor. Entrepreneurs from Ralph Lauren to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Alibaba’s Jack Ma are current examples of CEOs with the controlling votes to thwart genuine, planned succession.

These common, tragic sagas do not have to be the only scripts for such personality infused businesses. Consider these 5 exit strategies.

“Instead of clinging to a throne, a creative leader can serve a short tour of duty.”

1. Active board intervention. Michael Eisner’s terrific first decade at Walt Disney disintegrated in his second decade. Suspecting Eisner efforts to derail succession, the board appointed Senator George Mitchell as board chairman above Eisner. Ultimately, the highly regarded Bob Iger assumed the CEO position. Meanwhile, in 2015, after a decade that saw Disney’s stock triple, Iger announced his own retirement date (2018), carefully reviewing candidates for succession.

2. Incumbent humility. Time Warner’s Gerald Levin tried to extend his troubled rein by placing humble former banker Richard Parsons at his side, assuming Parsons’ lack of show biz background would ensure he was not a threat. Yet, Levin left in 2002, a year after the disastrous AOL merger, leaving Parsons in charge to stabilize things and smoothly pass the reins to the highly successful insider Jeff Bewkes.

3. Intergenerational partnership. Cable pioneer Ralph Roberts seamlessly transferred formal power to his carefully groomed son Brian, who brilliantly has built out the enterprise with NBCUniversal, as well as Xfinity.

4. Selling out. Another path often taken by monarchs, who fear anyone sitting on their throne, is selling the firm. Jim Wiatt surrendered the helm of the William Morris Agency with its 2009 takeover by Endeavor. ABC’s Leonard Goldenson did the same in 1985 when, after 30 years on top, he merged the network with Capital Cities Communications.

5. A governor’s mission. Instead of clinging to a throne, a creative leader can serve a short tour of duty, like a state governor, and then move to new ventures. Quincy Jones has soared as a musician, record exec/broadcaster (Qwest), publisher (VIBE), producer (Fresh Prince of Bel Air) and more. Chester Bowles co-founded an advertising giant, then sold his shares and stepped out as a top official for FDR. He later became governor of Connecticut, ambassador to India and Nepal under Truman, an under secretary of state for Kennedy, and finally, Nixon’s ambassador to India.


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