Managing CEO Succession After the CEO Has Died

Always tricky, leadership transitions get even tougher when a CEO departs the world along with the job.

CEM_SONNENFELD_GSThe traditional chant when a new monarch ascends to the throne has been the unsentimental proclamation, “The king is dead, long live the king”—to instantly reassure all of the continuity of command. Such consolation is just as essential in business, where companies are often caught unprepared for the impact of a leader’s demise.

Silicon Valley was grief stricken when SurveyMonkey’s CEO Dave Goldberg died suddenly May 1, while exercising during a family vacation. His wife, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, had often cited her husband’s model of partnership in sharing their personal and professional lives as her “rock” and referred to him as “the love of my life.” The ripples of trauma, however, spread widely outside of their family and friends.

Goldberg had taken the company from 12 employees to 450 and to a $2 billion valuation. To his colleagues and fellow tech titans, he was not a replaceable part on an assembly line of talent. That sentiment is common after the unexpected demise of a business leader.

Several analysts held out hope that Steve Jobs would reappear from his deathbed during Tim Cook’s first Apple keynote in October 2011. Every industry experiences its share of losses—which come in many forms. Last year, Autumn Radtke, the 28-year-old CEO of Bitcoin exchange First Meta, jumped to her death in Singapore. Arrowstream founder Steven LeVoie was shot by one of his own top lieutenants at age 54 in 2014. Arthur Goldberg, 58, a fitness buff whose casino portfolio included Caesars and Bally’s, died in 2000.

“SurveyMonkey has demonstrated how businesses can rally in the wake of such tragedy.”

In heavy industry, Michael Walsh, age 51 and CEO of Tenneco, succumbed to brain cancer. In the food industry, McDonald’s 60-year-old CEO, Jim Cantalupo, died of a heart attack in 2004. The board hastily replaced him with 43-year-old Charlie Bell, who died nine months later. Wendy’s CEO Gordon Teter died at age 56 in 1999; his predecessor, James Near, had died in 1996 at age 58.

Over the past few months, SurveyMonkey has demonstrated how businesses can rally in the wake of such tragedy by: Mourning without defining the enterprise by its past. Business had to go on—as Goldberg would have wanted. As Executive Chairman Zander Lurie, who stepped in as acting CEO, commented, “He truly was an egalitarian man who would give without ego. He just cared about investing in everything he was doing.”

Projecting the leader’s legacy into the future. Goldberg’s widow, Sandberg, joined the SurveyMonkey board a month after his death. She explained, “I am looking forward to working with the board and this amazing team and helping to realize Dave’s vision of building a lasting company that impacts the way we all do business for years to come.”

Bringing in respectful but fresh and credible new leadership. A major search firm worked with the board to size up internal and external candidates. By July, industry veteran Bill Veghte was named the new CEO. Veghte, a cloud expert who had held top jobs at Microsoft and HP, has the skills to fulfill the firm’s new direction. Equally important, he had been a friend of Goldberg’s for 30 years and considered him a mentor.

Rather than seek to minimize grief, redirecting it into a purposeful mission. Veghte declined Goldberg’s office, stating, “I share in the loss that everyone feels. For me, from out of this searing sadness comes fierce determination.” Employees applauded with tears and cheers.

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