Grief in the Corner Office

By Prince, C. J. | Chief Executive (U.S.), October 2001 | Go to article overview

Grief in the Corner Office


Prince, C. J., Chief Executive (U.S.)


COVER STORY

Every year, several of industry's top executives die unexpectedly. Here's how their companies cope.

Harry Pearce had a bad feeling when his doctor called him out of a senior management meeting at General Motors and asked him to meet her to discuss follow-up tests to a routine physical. He hurried to the hospital. "When I saw her coming down the hall toward me, I knew something was terribly wrong," Pearce recalls.

The then 55-year-old vice chairman of GM-expected to succeed Jack Smith as CEO when he retired-was experiencing no health problems, no aggravating symptoms; he had no evidence that anything was amiss. But on that otherwise ordinary day in April of 1998, Pearce heard the words: "You have leukemia." In a state of complete shock, he rose from his chair-and fainted.

The next thing he remembered was a flurry of activity as the doctor and several nurses sought to revive him. "I guess my body just shut down," says Pearce, now chairman of Hughes Electronics, a GM subsidiary. "Talk about being hit between the eyes."

Pearce's story had a happy ending. He recovered with the help of a stem-cell bone marrow transplant from his brother. But his brush with death was all too real, bringing him closer to the brink than he'd ever imagined.

Certainly Pearce isn't the first to have been thrown by such a sobering reality. The concept of debilitating illness contradicts the image of the proud, invincible CEO. No more or less tragic than the loss of any human life, the passing of a CEO is nevertheless uniquely charged, given the enormous impact he or she has on the health of companies and the welfare of employees.

The Coca-Cola Co. has yet to recover from the death of its revered CEO, Roberto Goizueta, who lost a brief battle with lung cancer in 1996. The market was forgiving at the time because Goizueta had long been grooming Doug Ivester to take over. But Ivester failed to live up to expectations and was gone after two tumultuous years. Current CEO Douglas Daft continues to struggle with layoffs, management turnover, and a slumping stock price.

Texas Instruments' Thomas Engibous, who took the helm when CEO Jerry Junkins died suddenly of a heart attack in May 1996, has fared better, but more than a few skeptics challenged his abilities, and the rocky transition translated into trying times for TI.

Goizueta and Junkins were just two of at least 20 CEOs of significant companies who have died unexpectedly of cancer, heart attacks, or fatal accidents in the past five years, leaving their companies grieving and their boards, too often, stumbling for successors. More than any other catastrophic event that will occur in the life of a company, the death of the CEO is the one least planned for.

Even for those whose craft it is to manage and anticipate risk, sudden death is a tough one to plan for. Yet unexpected events are apt to happen in the lives of busy executives, who travel more, work harder, and sleep less. Job stress has never been higher. Market cycles are shorter and chief executives are allowed far less time to prove themselves before they're shown the door. It's no wonder that, in the past year alone, at least 15 companies reported their CEOs had suffered heart attacks. Eight of those were fatal.

The high level of risk has led boards to take a much keener interest in CEOs' personal health. Once upon a carefree time, company leaders could indulge in cigars and brandy as often as they liked-so long as the company's numbers hit their mark. Not any longer. "There has been a general decline in practices by CEOs that are abusive to their health," observes Dennis Carey, vice chairman of global executive search firm Spencer Stuart, and author of CEO Succession. Peter Crist, vice chairman of global executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International, adds, "The days of walking into a CEO's office and seeing him or her eating Twinkies and drinking a Pepsi are probably gone. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Grief in the Corner Office
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.