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Mark Hurd's departure leaves successor in doubt

Of all the many head-scratchers surrounding Mark Hurd's ouster at HP -- What exactly did Jodie Fisher do as a "marketing contractor?" Wait, he gets an estimated $34.5 million after being ousted? All this for expense report irregularities? -- the one that has me most befuddled is this:

Why did the board oust Hurd without a clear successor in place?

Hurd's departure, after all, has been called stunning and unexpected. Presumably, the board controlled the timing of the announcement--its appearance on a Friday afternoon in August after the market closes, when reporters already had one foot out the door for a summer weekend, suggests careful public relations orchestration.

The move is especially odd given the amount of influence Wall Street believed Hurd had on HP's success. One analyst has called "the bull case" for HP "one part printers, one part servers and two parts Mark Hurd."

Naming the company's next leader at the same time might have done something to avert the 10% plunge in HP shares in extended trading on Friday. Given Hurd's popularity on the Street, the market may not have liked the news, but it abhors uncertainty.

It's always possible their hand was forced by the actress at the center of the uproar. Or by an enterprising journalist, though that seems less likely, given the lack of breaking news claims among the media gaggle and the timing of HP's announcement.

But even if either of those speculations were true, that only explains the sudden nature of the announcement, and not why an immediate successor wasn't anointed. (CFO Cathie Lesjak has been named interim chief executive.) Hurd was only 53, had only been in the role since 2005, and was doing such a remarkable job that it's almost understandable why a successor didn't immediately appear in the wings.

But note that I said almost. CEOs die. They have strokes. They leave for bigger jobs, as Hurd and his board should have known all too well.

And of course, they violate company codes of conduct. They're human, after all. It's the board's job to secure a smooth transition, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. Succession planning should be among their very top priorities, no matter how much of a hero their current guy may be.

By Jena McGregor

 |  August 9, 2010; 10:28 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , CEO watch Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: HP CEO Mark Hurd allowed to resign: No severance? | Next: Google's soul-searching

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