I got a huge chuckle this morning reading the WSJ account of Michael Eisner’s testimony in the lawsuit over the severance paid to ousted Walt Disney President Michael Ovitz in 1996. The entire thing would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad: a clueless board somehow approving $140 million in severance for 14 months of work, the petty fights in the office, Ovitz throwing a fit at Eisner’s mother’s funeral when he believed a car was blocking the hearse.
But the piece de resistance, in my view, was Eisner’s testimony that after the hearse incident, the CEO of this public company actually took the time to write what amounts to a non-succession plan. “If I should get hit by a truck,” he wrote to two directors, “the company simply cannot make him CEO or leave [him] as President with a figurehead CEO. It would be catastrophic!”
The irony is just lovely. Eisner is the man who, since taking over in 1984, steadfastly refused to work on succession planning until this year, only after he narrowly avoided getting the axe. Despite the fact that succession planning has become an accepted, indeed expected, part of good governance, Eisner never had the time or interest in looking for someone to back him up should something untoward happen to him. Some said he actively thwarted any attempts to do so and made sure that no No.2 ever got close enough to get a whiff of the corner office. But when it came to making sure who wouldnt succeed him, he hopped right to it, penning this panicked note and shooting it off to his board. If he’d spent as much time thinking about who might actually be good for the job, Disney might have become a role model for good corporate governance rather than a poster child for the opposite.