Reporters' Roundtable: When tech CEOs leave

How does a big tech company plan for the eventual or immediate departure of its leader? Two great experts, Beverly Behan and Charles Elson, weigh in.

Today we are talking about the lines of succession at big and influential technology companies. There are two big news hooks for this show: First, Apple CEO Steve Jobs will be stepping out of his day-to-day role for a time for health reasons, leaving operation of the company with Tim Cook. Also, just yesterday Google announced that CEO Eric Schmidt is moving into an evangelist role and handing the CEO title over to co-founder Larry Page.

Reading the tea leaves of CEO moves and succession is like reading a good sports story. We've had other great tales in tech history: Bill Gates leaving Microsoft to his polar opposite Steve Ballmer; and the charismatic Carly Fiorina getting bounced out of HP to be replaced by the disciplined Mark Hurd in 2005, who was himself forced out last year. There are many other stories like this.

How much of a tech company rides on the CEO, and what can a company do to ensure it maintains a working strategy when the CEO leaves -- for whatever reason? Today we're going to talk about CEO succession, with two experts:

First up, Beverly Behan of Board Advisor LLC. She's a board fixer. She's worked with more than 100 boards of directors over the past decade on issues including CEO succession planning, board engagement, board and director evaluation, and other board topics. Bev is author of "Great Companies Deserve Great Boards," which will be out in June, and has a BusinessWeek column called, The Boardroom.

Also joining us is professor Charles Elson, the director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. Charles is a former law professor, a writer for both corporate and popular media, a frequently quoted expert in publications like The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and The Washington Post, and a board member himself, at the heath care company HealthSouth.

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Some of our discussion points

First, the big news... and it's not Apple, although we'll get to that shortly. Yesterday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced he was stepping down as CEO , or perhaps stepping up, into the executive chairman position. Google co-founder Larry Page will become CEO. What's going on here? Is this a good move?

On to Apple. We can stipulate the Jobs is the engine of Apple's success so far. How much can Apple succeed with another CEO? How does the company plan for that?

I want to talk briefly about Jobs health issues. He has, again, asked for privacy regarding his medical status. Is this reasonable?

Microsoft. Discuss the differing roles of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. And more importantly, who's next? And when, since Microsoft seems to be shedding top-level directors.

Let's talk about HP. What the heck is going on over there? Bev, you've got your eyes on a tech legend who's on the board there, Marc Andreessen. Talk about that.

Michael Dell turned over the CEO job to COO Kevin Rollins in 2007 but after terrible company performance, Dell returned. He's still there. How does this happen?

Mark Zuckerberg is, like Michael Dell, poised to become one of the youngest CEOs of a public company. How does an aggressive prodigy like a Dell or a Zuckerberg learn to manage a large, increasingly regulated and constrained company without going insane? What do they do next? How to they groom their own successor? What is Sheryl Sandberg, the heir apparent, doing as well?

 

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