Dude…what if something happens to Manmohan Singh?

The query came as an online instant message a few evenings ago. The addressor was a high-powered corporate lawyer friend in Delhi, notorious for being privy to all sorts of secret dealings within the corridors of North Block, South Block and some very powerful corporates.

So, her query about our Prime Minister was most unsettling. “Good god, woman," I replied, “was our Prime Minister in trouble?"

“Relax," she said. “Singh is still king."

Apparently, she was working on a sovereign risk assessment of the country for a client and they wanted details on how succession planning worked in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Because I am a journalist, she assumed that I would have an answer. I asked her to wait “while I checked my vast notes and network of sources"…and then I Google-d and Wikipedia-d frantically like any modern journalist.

Finally, after an hour of browsing, searching and speed-reading the Constitution, we discovered no such protocol. We eventually conjectured that perhaps someone in the cabinet would take over.

This incident, coupled with the media buzz about the recently appointed new CEO of a large Indian bank, got me thinking about succession planning.

One of the most traumatic periods for a company is when a leader leaves. It is a time when every member of the senior management left behind begins to wonder: “Will this unsettle the rank and file? How will this impact the firm? What will happen to our stock price? Any chance the rascal cleared my expenses for December?"

And then, they decide to clarify all these doubts by meeting the departing CEO in person and handing over their updated resumes in case he is looking to poach people to go with him.

Complicating matters further is the fact that almost every person who joins a firm today secretly obsesses about becoming chief executive officer. Not for them the respectable mediocrity of our previous generations—when employees aspired only to retire as regional manager of the Kochi area of a bank. Children were asked to study hard by reminding them of daddy’s perks: newspaper allowance and one week of assured stay at the holiday home in Ooty (AC room as per grade).

Thanks a lot, today’s young people seem to shout back, but no thanks.

We want to become CEO, get that S-class Mercedes, move into the duplex flat on Worli sea face and personally rehire both the secretaries…and all by the time we’re 35.

I, too, secretly sometimes walk around the office looking stern, thumbing the BlackBerry and screaming orders to everyone silently in my head as I role-play managing editor. Blame the incessant ambition of our times.

“But we HR professionals have our own ways of tackling this problem, you know…" explained HR practitioner sans compare Mata HaRi.

We discussed succession planning over filter coffees at Matunga the other day.

The easiest way of filling a leadership vacuum, HaRi said, is to draw up a list of internal candidates and evaluate each of them for CEO potential, perhaps involving an external consulting firm for added objectivity.

And then, after exhaustively looking at each candidate, they appoint a complete stranger from outside as CEO. “This way, we are completely fair towards all internal candidates, destroying all their hopes and ambitions equitably."

Another great solution, she continued, is to skip the entire second rung of managers and pick someone from the third rung.

But surely, this will upset a lot of senior managers? Many of them might even quit, feeling slighted perhaps?

“Yes, of course. This can often stall operations for many months. But that is more than offset by the often overlooked fact that we got rid of the old fogeys without paying severance."

I applauded her masterstroke.

“But then there are times when you have to choose an internal candidate and then appease everyone else suitably. Which is when we use SBUs or redesignations," HaRi mused as we paid the bill.

By spinning off certain divisions into strategic business units and then making the overlooked fellows heads of these SBUs, you could assuage their egos somewhat.

But isn’t it complicated to make new SBUs?

“Nonsense. Just print new letterheads and visiting cards."

Later, HaRi told me, when these heads left, you could fold back the SBUs into the main company and even make a few jobs redundant. Very convenient, she said, for those quarters when shareholders lust for cost-cutting.

Unfortunately, HaRi could talk no more and had to rush for an interview. The fellow had stated in his covering letter that his lifelong ambition was to become assistant vice-president, IT support services.

“Just the sort of employee with manageable ambitions we need in our company," HaRi exclaimed happily before leaping into a cab.

Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com