Giving Some Clarity to Succession

In his annual letter to shareholders, issued on Saturday, the legendary Warren Buffett confirmed that Berkshire Hathaway has a CEO successor in place as well as two back-ups. But he still left investors guessing the identities of those individuals.

No doubt Berkshire shareholders should be able to take some comfort in knowing that a successor has been identified. Yet I’m sure they’d sleep even better were they to know their names.

But then there would be nothing left to speculate about.

Earlier today, Buffett told CNBC that the letter’s mention of a plan wasn’t really a change—that the board has always had a preferred candidate and two backups. That, however, may not have been entirely clear to many shareholders, at least until Saturday.

I’m sure it was no accident Buffett inserted the mention near the very the beginning of his 22-page letter. The Berkshire chairman obviously didn’t want shareholders to miss the point. Though reportedly in good health, he is 81, after all.

Considering the importance of CEO succession, it never fails to amaze me how few companies actually have plans in place.  Buffett notes in this year’s letter that one of the principal roles of the board of directors is to ensure “the right people are running the business” and “that the next generation of leaders is identified and ready to take over tomorrow.” So why do we continue to read studies, like one released by Korn/Ferry, that report just 35 percent of companies have CEO succession plans in place?

Whether you personally consider it news or not, maybe Buffett’s reference—and some of the press reports it generated—will, at the very least, lead a few more boards to put it a bit higher on their agendas.