The Black Swan of NPR

March 9, 2011

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller resigned today after NPR executive Ron Schiller (no relation to Ms. Schiller) was “stung” by a hidden camera, revealing his biases against the Tea Party. The incident came on the heels of a controversial firing of Juan Williams in 2010.

The same morning, NPR issued a press release, which read, in part:
“According to a CEO succession plan adopted by the Board in 2009, Joyce Slocum, SVP of Legal Affairs and General Counsel, has been appointed to the position of Interim CEO. The Board will immediately establish an Executive Transition Committee that will develop a timeframe and process for the recruitment and selection of new leadership.”

That’s fast. And guess why they were able to be so nimble? They adopted a succession plan that could be enacted at a moment’s notice. This was that moment. How many boards tell themselves, “We really need to work on our succession plan”, only to have the day-to-day exigencies of the organization take precedence over something that feels theoretical and nearly impossible-the sudden departure of the CEO.

If you haven’t read the book “The Black Swan” (no relation to the Natalie Portman movie), I encourage you to do so. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells us that the truly important events, what he calls “Black Swans,” are rare and unpredictable. And while you can’t plan for many of these unpredictable events, this is one Black Swan you CAN plan for: you can create a succession plan. Last month I wrote about Steve Jobs’ illness and the Apple board’s refusal to reveal its succession plan to their shareholders. Apple has said they have a plan but will not disclose it.

You don’t have to disclose your plan. But you do have to have one. The NPR board got it right; they were ready.

Is your board?


3 Responses to “The Black Swan of NPR”

  1. […] in their position or leave, often rose and fell with the relative efficacy of their board. I have written before in this space on the critical necessity of having a succession plan in place; sadly, the report tells us that […]

  2. Janet Unger Says:

    It is helpful for a board to distinguish between the need for a succession plan and a succession policy.

    Many nonprofit boards have a governance policy stating who would serve as the interim executive in the absence of the CEO.

    Some COO or other senior executive position descriptions include a simple phrase such as: “Acts on behalf of the CEO during absences.” This one line states how the organization would ensure continuity of leadership in an emergency.

    Trustees often assume that a succession plan should indicate who is next in line to become the CEO. It would be a mistake for many boards to conclude that one of the CEO’s subordinates should take over without conducting a dynamic executive search of the current talent pool. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not necessary for all nonprofits to have a succession plan but it is essential for all boards to have a succession policy. The specific plan for deciding the search process and time line for the next CEO can be defined by the board when the situation arises.

  3. Ron C. Peck Says:

    Congratulations to NPR. It is difficult to think of a successor but is necessary for the health of the organization. Board Source is equipped with resources to help pave the wave. We fully appreciate our membership to Board Source.

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