Companies Chase Away Their Top Execs With Arcane ‘Bake-Offs’

The entertainment industry is rapidly evolving. Yet the gladiatorial way major studios choose leaders remains rooted in a barbaric, often counterproductive past.

Hollywood still embraces the “bake-off,” the public spectacle of setting up two or more internal candidates for the same job, then letting them duke it out before the boss anoints a successor. The goal, obviously, is to breed healthy competition and keep prized talent hungry. Too often, though, a byproduct can be pangs of corporate paralysis, creating factions within the company, and engendering an almost inevitable ritual shedding of the also-rans.

The latest shoe dropped at the Walt Disney Co., where chief financial officer Jay Rasulo announced his exit, having lost the chief operating officer role — and thus heir apparent status to CEO Robert Iger — to Tom Staggs. Admittedly, Disney’s succession skirmish, amid its explosive success, seems positively stately compared with the protracted three-way race that concluded in 2013 at Burbank neighbor Warner Bros., which elevated Kevin Tsujihara, and watched passed-over rivals Jeff Robinov and Bruce Rosenblum subsequently take their leave. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Disney.)

Notably, selecting a winner doesn’t necessarily usher in harmony or end the blood sport. That’s because those who aligned themselves with the champion begin jockeying for promotions, while colleagues who bet on the wrong horse face the prospect of being purged like the corporate heretics they are.

Obviously, there’s a certain Darwinian aspect to big business, and not everyone gets to be the alpha dog. What’s unique about the bake-off, however, is to make the competition so public as to virtually ensure that the runners-up — who were presumably pretty qualified too — must hit the road, if only in the name of self-respect.

Never mind whether executives like Rasulo, Rosenblum or Robinov (mental note: Don’t get into a bake-off if your last name begins with “R”), veterans who had spent years or even decades at their studio, would still be an asset to the company. The logic underlying the process — and the very public nature in which it is frequently conducted — dictates that if you’re not CEO, it’s time to go.

So to the victor, the spoils, and the delaying action of the bake-off process does keep the children at home, at least for a time. Yet the unintended consequence of these situations — especially in the case of Warner Bros., which dragged out its “office of the president” configuration for more than two years — inflicts short-term damage to the designated heir as well. After all, if he or she were such a clear-cut choice, wouldn’t the top brass have been able to decide sooner?

An obvious analogy would be big-time sports, where assistant coaches are regularly upped to the head spot. Although other inhouse contenders might explore employment elsewhere, teams generally recognize the value in ensuring an element of continuity. The same rationale should theoretically apply to studios, where even having a deep bench of talent to take over for outgoing execs — a common line of defense once the changing of the guard begins — can yield a serious loss of institutional knowledge.

In cinematic terms, the lingering image associated with this process can be found in “The Iron Mistress,” a movie starring Alan Ladd as the fractious Jim Bowie. Among the more memorable sequences, Bowie engages in a duel with another skilled knife fighter in which the two have their wrists taped together in a small room. Left alone, the idea is they battle until one staggers out.

The scene is entertaining, but it’s worth remembering that movie was released in 1952. When it comes to finding next-generation management, maybe it’s time for Hollywood to bend or break the bake-off mold — and start developing a new script for succession.

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