Leading View

August 3, 2010 11:05 am

Who is in charge when the boss is away?

Many chief executives stay in control while on holiday

The dog days of August are upon us and prompt the question: “Who is in charge when the top dog is on holiday?” We expect our business and political leaders to take a break once in a while, so long as the holiday is not ostentatious and there are plans in place to cope with the unexpected.

Yet, we also fear that the country or the organisation is drifting and we wonder who is really in command. Who can supply the firm smack of government when the president or the prime minister is on the beach? Who will run our largest corporations when the chief executive is halfway up a mountain?

The Careerist column noted last month that “not only are holidays a time to relax, recharge and reflect so that you return to work refreshed, but they are also exercises in delegation and empowerment”.

The issue was highlighted recently in the case of David Cameron, prime minister, who broke with a practice favoured by Labour when he declared at the G-20 summit in Canada that he did not intend to hand over the country to his Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg: “You don’t have to have this formal handover when you go on holiday. I will have a decent break but in this day and age of technology, I don’t think it is necessary to have the kind of carry on the last government had.”

That “carry on” was a deputy prime minister, John Prescott, who filled in for Tony Blair on his family holidays and Harriet Harman who did the same for Gordon Brown during his premiership. Like the classic Carry On comedy film series they both provided us with years of light summer relief.

Of course, Mr Cameron may also have been thinking about his own future when he decided that Mr Clegg should not be exercising prime ministerial power. There are two risks in that scenario: Mr Clegg does well and is seen as a viable leader in his own right; or, he does badly and undermines the coalition government at a sensitive moment in its early history.

The first risk we might call the “Hayward Gambit” after Tony Hayward, the soon-to-leave chief executive of BP. In his rush to “get his life back” in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Mr Hayward took a weekend break and left Bob Dudley in charge of day-to-day cleanup operations. Putting your main rival in charge of the most important issue facing your company while you go yachting is an odd choice.

As Lee Bolman, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch School of Business and Public Administration, commented in the Kansas City Star newspaper: “What he chose to do was symbolically tone deaf. As the symbolic head of BP, he’s the image the company has to live with, and going yachting screamed ‘leisure class’ – a bad choice. If I were Tony Hayward’s public relations consultant, I would have suggested a quiet weekend at home.”

The second risk could be called the “Obama gambit”. No matter how badly you are perceived to be handling a difficult issue, there is no way you want to put your deputy in charge while you are away. President Barack Obama risked public opprobrium by taking a short break in Maine rather than put Mr Biden in charge of the administration’s day-to-day operations.

Mr Cameron’s decision to remain in charge and use technology to make himself available is the strategy of the chief executives of most large companies. One former Fortune 50 CEO told me: “In all my years as a CEO, and before that as [chief operating officer], I did not myself [and] nor did anyone around me ever put someone in charge when the CEO was away. So far as I am concerned, it’s a 24/7, 365 day job.”

The female CEO of a smaller US company agreed. “I stay in touch electronically on vacation and my assistant does a great job of forwarding things appropriately so that no time is lost,” she says. “I have never made an internal announcement as to who is in charge in my absence as I really am still reachable. All of my direct reports know how to get things done or what to do while I am away.”

One benefit for a CEO of taking a holiday is the ability to rush back dramatically from it to be seen to be taking action. The former personal assistant of a CEO revealed: “The CFO or COO was ‘in charge’ for the day-to-day duties but for anything substantial the CEO was always brought in. I know there was an incident where our CEO came back from his vacation to deal with the situation personally.”

Most politicians understand this requirement. As Guy Dinmore recently reported, “Fresh from giving a soothing voiceover in a government commercial urging Italians to spend their summer holidays in ‘magic Italy’, Silvio Berlusconi’s mid-term crisis ... forced him to cancel his own vacation plans.”

The salutary counter-example is the decision by George W Bush, former US president, not to immediately interrupt his month-long Crawford ranch vacation while New Orleans struggled with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His presidency never really recovered.

So, Mr Cameron has hit all the right notes. He is staying in Cornwall for a low-key vacation. He has equipped himself with the appropriate technology. And he has resisted putting a rival in charge of anything important. All he needs to worry about now is the weather and battling the holiday traffic to get back to London in the event of a crisis.

The writer is a partner at Tapestry Networks

He can be reached at leadingview@tapestrynetworks.com

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