When the public face of an organization leaves

No one is indispensable or stays forever in a role

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I’m a big fan of Canadian alternative rock band Three Days Grace. I have all of their albums, and their second release One X is one of my all-time favourite CDs. I have seen them in concert three times and was looking forward to seeing them again in support of their new album, which just came out late last year.

But two weeks ago I heard on the radio that lead singer Adam Gontier was leaving the band due to unspecified non-life threatening health concerns. (More recent interviews and communications from Gontier have since focused on his belief it was simply time to move on and start a new chapter in his life.)

My own reaction shocked me a bit, since I was really upset about Gontier’s departure. For a while, I felt like an emotional teenager all over again. (Not that I cried or anything that extreme.)

I actually had to remind myself it's not like I know these people personally. And Gontier's distinctive voice will always live on in their recorded music. He may even return to the band some day.

For now, the band has announced they will continue on their upcoming American tour with a replacement singer, Matt Walst of My Darkest Days, who is the brother of Three Days Grace bassist Brad Walst. The band has even released versions of a few of their favourites with Walst on vocals so fans can hear what the band sounds like with him singing instead of Gontier.  

Reaction from fans and the music industry has been mixed, with some feeling the move was “gutsy” and others believing it was somewhat dishonest to continue selling tickets to their shows knowing Gontier was leaving the band. Personally, my feelings are somewhat mixed.

Walst doesn’t sound bad, but I definitely prefer Gontier. Nevertheless, I’ll probably go and see the band when they come to town — although I won’t be as excited to see them as usual, and I believe concert tickets should be discounted under the circumstances.

Believe it or not, I see this as an interesting HR issue. How an organization (after all, a successful rock band is a multimillion dollar organization) deals with a very public leader moving on or even being fired says a lot about how it brands and rebrands itself, as well as issues around succession and contingency planning, employee engagement, turnover and retention.

No one is completely indispensable

An organization really should be more than the sum of its parts. This can be an important concern in professional sports (the very public firing of larger-than-life former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke) or the business world (the death of beloved former Apple CEO Steve Jobs).

Contrary to popular belief — particularly with respect to “rock star” high performers or people who are the public face of an organization — no one is completely indispensable. The truth is anyone can be replaced. And, paradoxically, effective leaders and other key individuals can often make themselves even more valuable by sharing their knowledge and expertise and helping groom one or more successors.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how an organization can carry on without such popular, highly-skilled or charismatic individuals, but the reality is life goes on without them, even if things are never quite the same. Anyone could be hit by the proverbial bus, and people and organizations are constantly growing, evolving and changing.

Organizations therefore need to develop contingency plans to help deal with the fallout when a highly popular or well-known leader leaves the organization for whatever reason. It’s a good idea to have disaster recovery and business continuity plans in place to deal with such situations. Succession planning is critical for such individuals and should consider both internal and external candidates.

Public relations and branding are also extremely important concerns, especially in the early days following the departure of a key individual. The organization may even need to change its brand perception so the focus is more on the organization or other individuals as opposed to the departed leader.

However, I believe there’s a problem in allowing any one individual — no matter how talented — to become the public face of an organization in the first place. I agree with my fellow blogger Dave Crisp that we have become too hung up on the mythology of the “heroic CEO” responsible for singlehandedly running an organization.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.  

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