Do You Need a Deputy CEO?

August 31, 2017 | Management Today

In politics, the deputy is a popular role. America has a Vice President, Germany has a Vice Chancellor and, while the UK doesn’t have a deputy PM at present, at least we have Prince Charles.

In business, the idea of having an heir apparent is far more popular in France, say, where over half of CAC 40 businesses have a deputy CEO, than here. It was never the done thing in Britain, but now there are precisely zero deputy CEOS in the FTSE 100, according to research from executive search firm DHR International.

‘Whether the deputy CEO is in place as part of a succession plan for the CEO, acting as an interim placement, or helping a new CEO find their feet – the role can be a vital tool to avoid any potential disruption to the smooth running of the board,’ says Frank Smeekes, DHR International’s managing partner, Europe.

A deputy CEO can ‘offer continuity for stakeholders including shareholders’ in the event of the CEO unexpectedly stepping down, Smeekes says, while also working ‘to ensure that the current CEO is pulling their weight – the deputy CEO stands as a constant reminder that the board does not necessarily consider the CEO to be indispensable.’

Are we Brits missing a trick then? Well maybe. Having a robust contingency plan in the event of your CEO suddenly leaving (or, dare we say, dying) is of course important. Without it, there could be enormous disruption (and not of the sparkly, Silicon Valley variety). Similarly, it is obviously prudent to make sure the organisation isn’t utterly dependent on any one person to function properly.

But you can achieve these things without having a formal deputy role. Leadership as a team effort could mean there are numerous people in the senior management who could take the helm should they be required at short notice, without needing months to get up to speed with the organisational big picture.

On the other hand, having a named successor, without a specified exit point for the current CEO, is far from ideal. Aside from giving them a vested interest in your untimely departure, it also ties the board’s hands – what if, in a year’s time, they decide someone else has skills that are more appropriate in their next leader? What talented deputy CEO would stay once they’re told they’re no longer next in line?

More to the point, what does a deputy CEO do all day, while they’re not waiting for the current CEO to leave? Anyone familiar with the American satire Veep would think twice about taking an important-sounding role without any actual responsibilities.

The best type of deputy CEO would, of course, be one with a different c-suite day job (the company’s CFO or CMO for example), but really all it comes down to then is grooming someone to be the emergency interim boss. That’s all well and good, but why the need for the formal title?

If the absence of deputy CEOs from the British business landscape is a sign of the absence of contingent thinking and succession planning, we should be worried. But it probably isn’t. If it’s just a sign of modesty when it comes to titles – the inflationary trends of which are hardly a good thing – then I think we can sleep easy.