Business & Tragedy: What Happens When Your Predecessor Dies?


There’s no playbook for that, says SurveyMonkey CEO Zander Lurie.



Few leaders of US$2 billion companies could openly – and honestly – declare their job as “a role I never wanted.” But that was exactly the case for Zander Lurie, who obligingly stepped in after Dave Goldberg, the 47-year-old CEO of SurveyMonkey, tragically died while on vacation in Mexico in May 2015.

“He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” says Zander of Dave, the much-loved husband of Sheryl Sandberg who, in five years, grew SurveyMonkey from having a dozen to more than 500 employees. “He inspired me to live a purpose-driven life.”

Zander met Dave in 2000 and the pair grew to become close friends. They were both in Mexico when Dave died, and it was Zander, a member of the SurveyMonkey board, who broke the news to employees.

“You just want to remind people that we’re people first and this is just shocking news and there’s no sugar-coating or trying to make anything nice,” says Zander.

Despite still being GoPro’s senior vice president of entertainment, he was asked to step in as a temporary executive chairman. Aside from being “a shoulder to cry on,” Zander was there to help continue those all-too-important business functions – closing acquisitions, signing recruits, reassuring customers and supporting the senior management team. Through it all, his priority was clear.

“First and foremost, it’s to hug your core. And your core is that team that makes stuff happen every day,” says Zander, who made a habit of walking the halls and also brought in tech community leaders, including friends at GoPro, LinkedIn and Twitter, to mentor individuals on the 20-plus management team. “The thing I used to say to people last summer was, ‘There’s no playbook for this so if you’re upset with how I’m doing things, please do send me the playbook on that,’ but nobody sent that to me. And I hope nobody else has to sit in that job,” he laughs. “I’m not doing that again. That’s a one-time job.”

So, 10 months on as he visits the company’s new APAC office in Sydney, what has Zander learnt from the experience?

“A lot of this job is around HR and strategy,” he says. “The biggest job a CEO has is to put really big challenges out there, make it an inspiring, awesome place for smart people to spend their time and make sure they’re rewarded for their contribution. There’s no check, check, check list but it’s got to be somebody who is relatively smart, super honest, follows through and does what he or she says they’re going to do and somebody that people want to work with.”

A sudden change at the helm can be unsettling for everyone, so it’s important not to underestimate the need to listen to your team and accept that mistakes will be made, says Zander.

“I think there’s a wide range of emotions whenever you have a sudden CEO change, whether it’s somebody passing away or quitting suddenly or going to jail or whatever it might be, that you’re in a role which is very uncomfortable for everybody,” he says. “By and large, what you need to do is listen.”

Read the full story in Issue 32, on shelves now.

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