Just Say “No” to Interim CEOs

By October 5, 2016 No Comments

By: Linda Henman

Last September, Chief Executive Jeff Smisek and two senior officials of United Airlines stepped down in response to a federal investigation into whether the airline had traded favors with the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The scandal involved United agreeing to reinstate money-losing flights to the airport nearest the weekend home of the authority’s chairman, David Samson, in return for improvements the airline wanted at Newark Liberty International Airport, where it is the biggest carrier.

The resigning CEO, the former Chief Executive of Continental Airlines, has led United since the two airlines merged in 2010. United’s performance since the deal, however, has lagged rivals’ and alienated passengers. But Smisek will be handsomely rewarded. Experts placed the value of Smisek’s severance package at $8.4 million at the time of his ouster.

The board then invited board director Oscar Munoz, a railroad executive, to step into the CEO role. In his sixth week on the job, Munoz suffered a heart attack that led to his needing a heart transplant.

Now they have the lawyer, Brett Hart, running things. Hart currently receives a base of more than $42,000 a month, to which he will add an additional $100,000 per month during his tenure as acting CEO. He is also eligible for incentive pay and a variety of benefits. One assumes Mr. Munoz still draws his salary. Anyone doing the math might infer that these totals create a costly way to run a railroad or an airline.

Interim CEOs don’t traditionally serve companies well, but how should decision makers avoid this sort of scenario? Here are some ideas:

  • Avoid desperation hiring. Too often companies settle for average performers whom they can reasonably expect to do the jobs for which they were hired. A pattern of this kind of hiring doesn’t always hurt immediately, but it certainly will eventually.
  • Identify replacements for key positions as soon as a new person assumes the role. This will avoid desperation promotions.
  • Develop people at every level in the organization, especially those in key functions. Make the development of successors an expectation that’s tied to performance ratings and financial rewards.
  • Fire immediately for integrity infractions.
  • Smisek stepped down after five years of poor performance. No board should allow numerous years of poor performance from any CEO.
  • When emergencies occur, have a well-established plan for who should step in to make decisions and run day-to-day operations, but don’t proclaim this person the new CEO.
  • Don’t reward poor executive performance with huge severance packages.
  • Establish the length of time a CEO can recover from an emergency before the board will ask for a resignation and permanent replacement.

Every four years we experience the “lame duck” months between the start of the year and the presidential election. Often volatility in the stock market alerts people to the problem, and businesses sitting on cash and other kinds of cautious behavior also frequently follow. The lame-duck nature of an interim CEO is no different. Companies can’t flourish during uncertainty any more than a nation can, so smart boards avoid letting that happen.


Dr. Linda Henman is one of those rare experts who can say she’s a coach, consultant, speaker, and author. For more than 30 years, she has worked with Fortune 500 Companies and small businesses that want to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully today and tomorrow. Some of her clients include Emerson Electric, Boeing, Avon and Tyson Foods. She was one of eight experts who worked directly with John Tyson after his company’s acquisition of International Beef Products, one of the most successful acquisitions of the twentieth century.

Linda holds a Ph.D. in organizational systems and two Master of Arts degrees in both interpersonal communication and organization development and a Bachelor of Science degree in communication. Whether coaching executives or members of the board, Linda offers clients coaching and consulting solutions that are pragmatic in their approach and sound in their foundation—all designed to create exceptional organizations.

She is the author of Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat , The Magnetic Boss: How to Become the Leader No One Wants to Leave, and contributing editor and author to Small Group Communication, among other works.

Dr. Henman can be reached at

Published by Conselium Executive Search, the global leader in compliance search.  

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