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Who's On the Bench

September 13, 2007
Related Topics: Values, Ethics, Policies and Procedures, Succession Planning, Featured Article
Even if you just arrived in the working world, you’ll have heard this refrain a million times by the end of your first week: Everyone is replaceable. It’s a mantra managers should chant to themselves every day because every manager knows that even the most stable and well-run business can be thrown for a loop when the unexpected happens.

    And that’s why the case of Michael Vick, the star Atlanta Falcons quarterback who last month pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges, is such an interesting object lesson for organizations everywhere. How is it that a business the size of the Falcons, with $170 million in annual revenue, doesn’t have a good succession plan in case something catastrophic—like going to prison —knocks out its most valuable employee?

    Just last year, Forbes magazine said this about the team in its annual valuation of National Football League franchises: "Since buying the Falcons in 2002, Arthur Blank has turned the team into Atlanta’s hottest ticket, with a 40,000-person waiting list for season tickets. Much of the team’s success is a result of the arm (and more often the legs) of star quarterback Michael Vick."

    Clearly, Vick wasn’t just any other player, and team management recognized this by signing him to a 10-year, $130 million contract extension in 2004. Equally clear is that Blank isn’t just any owner. He’s the savvy businessman who co-founded Home Depot, one of the largest retailers in the world.

    I doubt that Blank would have let himself get into this position at Home Depot, but he let his football managers build the team around Michael Vick without any good plan for what to do in case something happened to him. Falcons management believed so much in Vick that they traded away his backup, a young and talented quarterback named Matt Schaub, to Houston during the off-season. Schaub played when Vick was injured the past couple of years, and he always seemed to perform extremely well when thrown into the breach.

    Now, with Vick suspended and awaiting sentencing, the Falcons are in big trouble. As a story in the Los Angeles Times put it, "The team’s string of 51 consecutive sellouts is as good as dead." The paper also quotes a local radio executive who says, "There is absolutely no buzz with this team now." Schaub, discarded by the Falcons, might have been someone the team could get people to rally around. Instead, fans get a journeyman in Joey Harrington, a nice guy who has had an undistinguished six-year career in Miami and Detroit.

    Contingency plans and succession scenarios are a staple of every well-managed organization. Although I’m surprised that an NFL team owned by Arthur Blank would find itself in this fix, it’s actually not all that unusual in the business world. For instance, a series of surveys published last year by the National Association of Corporate Directors in Washington and Mercer Delta Consulting found that about half of all corporate boards say they do a poor job of planning for CEO succession, and have no succession plan in place.

    The lesson here is simple: In a world where just about everyone is replaceable, managers should always be planning to replace anyone and everyone. No matter how smooth things may seem, you need to have a contingency plan that will keep things going when the much-feared worst-case scenario really does come to pass. Because inevitably, and probably unexpectedly, it will.

    Succession planning is a never-ending exercise. It’s an insurance policy for the future; a plan to help your organization keep things on an even keel no matter how big a storm your business might find itself in.

    Arthur Blank and his managers should have seen this one coming. They had a good succession plan—Schaub—but inexplicably, they discarded it and put all their faith in one guy. You and your managers would do well to learn from this and not do the same thing.

Workforce Management, September 10, 2007, p. 58 -- Subscribe Now!

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