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There appears to be mounting press coverage at the moment about the causes and consequences of Microsoft being unable to announce the name of Steve Ballmer’s successor as the next Redmond CEO. Much of that coverage appears to be about the culpability of the company’s board in this, as their main job is succession planning for the top job. I’m not so sure that that is particularly fair criticism.

One of the very first things I was asked to do when I joined the software company was to create my own succession plan. There was a set template, and I had to provide names of internal and external candidates who would be ready now, in a year or two, or further into the future. Having just landed as an external hire into an unfamiliar role, I just found this a little bit odd. I’m sure that our HR person thought “Oh no. Another one who can’t follow a simple process.”

Huge effort went across the company into such processes. And yet when time came to fill empty positions, all of that information seemed to go out of the window. Maybe mine was an  unusual department, but a departure would usually be an opportunity to reassess how responsibilities were aligned. You would be very rarely looking for someone cast in the image of the predecessor; it was a game being played on paper alone.

Now compare that to the top job, many levels up in the hierarchy. It’s one thing to plan for a succession when things are going well- mainly because you probably would tend towards finding a new version of what you have today (and you are unlikely to ever put that plan into place). But if things aren’t going well, thinking about who you might want, and then whether those people would be in any way interested, is something that is incredibly hypothetical until you try to do it.

Imagine someone asks you if, if it were to be available, you would like a job. You’ll probably say yes or maybe- there’s nothing to lose because there is nothing really at stake in the world of succession planning. But when it comes time to actually recruit, the world changes. And as I’ve argued before, the next CEO of Microsoft is a really hard gig.

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