How to replace an irreplaceable CEO

Japanese CEO Masayoshi Son opened a school to train potential successors. Steve Jobs, take note.

In about 10 years, Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of Japanese telecommunication’s company SoftBank, wants to retire and pass the torch to a younger version of himself. There’s only one problem: nobody is quite like Masayoshi Son.

The 52-year-old entrepreneur famously lost an estimated $77 billion — perhaps the greatest personal fortune ever to vanish in a two-year period — when the dot-com bubble collapsed. But since then, SoftBank has grown to become Japan’s 15th-most-valuable company. Now Son, who grew up in poverty, has a 30-year plan to turn SoftBank into one of the world’s top 10 firms — all he needs is a successor to follow the blueprint.

To find him or her, Son has created his very own school: SoftBank Academia. Three hundred industrious students will study for as long as it takes for Son to hand-pick an heir to his throne. Son was frank with shareholders about his plan, saying “the purpose of this is only one thing: to make Masayoshi Son 2.0.”

The strategy is extreme, but it’s one to which other corporate leaders might want to pay attention. Many companies are reluctant to announce a succession plan for fear it might signal instability within executive ranks. This is especially true when shareholder faith rests more with a charismatic leader’s vision than with the strength of the organization itself.

Take Steve Jobs. Apple’s shares rose 4.2% in 2009 when Jobs revealed his suspicious weight loss was linked to a hormonal imbalance, and not the return of pancreatic cancer. Similarly, in 2008, a mere rumour that Jobs had a heart attack caused the stock to fall 5%. Unless Jobs plans to live forever, this is clearly a volatile state of affairs.

A survey conducted by Heidrick & Struggles this spring asked Canadian and U.S. executives at large public and private companies if they had a succession plan. Half could not immediately name a successor, and almost 40% said they had “zero” candidates within their company. Respondents estimated their boards spend an average of only two hours per year discussing succession planning.

But according to management experts, it’s not a lack of foresight preventing CEOs from planning for their eventual departure — it’s their big egos that get in the way. Sheeba Varghese, an executive coach at Forward Focus Inc., says that many executives’ sense of identity is deeply linked to their position of leadership. “The choices CEOs make about their successors separate those who sincerely care about the organization, from those who only care about themselves.” Otherwise, says Varghese, “why wouldn’t CEOs tackle succession for the good of the shareholders? It’s the right thing to do.”

Much like Jobs at Apple, Son’s own face has become synonymous with the SoftBank brand in the 29 years since its founding. It makes sense, says Varghese, that the best way to get shareholders to transfer their loyalties down the road is to have the trusted public face of the company hand-pick his replacement.

On SoftBank’s website, the application to Son’s school highlights the key criteria to be met by candidates. They must be between age 20 and 50, deeply tuned into the “Information Revolution,” and have “proud experiences and achievements.” Son will accept only 30 applicants from outside his company for the six-month application and interview process.

“I don’t know who else can really do it effectively,” says Varghese. “When HR gets involved, they’re just trying to get a bum in the seat.” Besides, there’s no better way to secure a legacy than to personally appoint someone to protect it.