Expect the unexpected

Last month, Marks & Spencer’s group FD Ian Dyson announced his
resignation less than 48 hours after the arrival of Marc Bolland, the company’s
new chief executive. Surprises at senior management level like this are a bit
like volcano eruptions: we know they happen frequently, but we’re not sure when,
who will be affected and what the final cost will be.

As Mr Bolland may well have found, these unplanned situations divert
executive time away from important strategic work, can be highly disruptive and
may last anything up to six months or more.

The usual reactions in these circumstances is for the senior team to
pull-together and try to cover the role as best they can, or charge a lower
level manager with ‘stepping up to the mark’, often resulting in people becoming
overstretched with two jobs.

Neither option is ideal, less so now that most organisations have slimmed
down headcounts to the bare minimum. Being caught on the back foot and muddling
through, I suspect, is the reality for most organisations. Having a gap-filling
strategy in place is the answer.

According to HR expert Vanessa Robinson of the Chartered Institute of
Personnel and Development, there are three essential things organisations can

First, ensure managers are exposed to other functions in the organisation as
part of their leadership development. This will give them greater agility
between roles.

Second, have a plan in place for who will cover key positions should one
suddenly become vacant. Make the individuals broadly familiar with the other’s
role and responsibilities.

Third, recognise, as in the M&S case, that these events are often
reported negatively and can have a disruptive effect internally. So have a clear
and fast communications process to counter the impact.

Another thing organisations can do is consider using an interim executive to
hold the fort. In that case, a different set of rules apply. Brief the interim
well and communicate widely why they’ve been hired. Be open to hard-hitting,
dispassionate advice from someone with a track record of successfully meeting
the challenge you now face; unrestrained by either culture or career aspirations
in your organisation. Make sure you include a legacy process for capturing,
exploiting and sustaining the interim’s experience and knowledge.

M&S has come a long way in the last six years but there’s still a lot for
Boland to do. How he responds, and how quickly the company fills the gap left by
its departing group FD could make a big difference.

Rob Walker is chief executive of BIE Interim Executive, which places
interim finance and other senior directors.

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