CEOs, particularly new ones, are easy to trick into doing something stupid. They may not realize yet who they can trust. Apotheker was certainly hurt by HP's lack of image protection, but Palm was what really got him shot. Here was a company in an area about which he had no knowledge that was acquired with a merger plan that should have assured its success. However, the merger plan was thrown out. A high-profile tablet was designed instead, it failed spectacularly, and the blame flowed uphill to the CEO.
This was the most masterful sabotage of a CEO that I've ever seen. The guy who appears to have pulled this off was clearly hoping to get the CEO nod as a result. He didn't. Meg Whitman better watch her back, then, or else she may become the poster child for this next time someone writes a column like this.
Another way to approach this situation is to leave a prior CEO in place after the new one is selected. Odds are good the founding CEO will, intentionally or otherwise, sabotage the new CEO. People are trained to turn to the old leader, and the founding CEO may catastrophically try to defend what was his turf and come back to replace the new CEO-which is what just happened at JCP. A retained founding CEO or passed-over rival is often a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off.
Good Help Is Hard to Find
It isn't that hard to get rid of a CEO, particularly a new one. The Peter Principle tells us that virtually all of them are incapable of doing the job and must depend on others to close the gaps.
In any large company, there are always people who dislike the CEO for some reason and want him gone. There should be folks tasked with protecting the CEO; this group generally includes the board, particularly the chairman. But the CEO himself may assure no such responsibility exists-and even if it does, the need to be liked may turn this function more into a wall that shields the CEO from the world he must see to succeed.
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