Ready with the Grab Bag?

Suddenly the boss was gone. Digital solutions help safeguard businesses.

One diagnosis is enough to change an entire lifetime, at home but also at work. The Steinbeis expert Elke Kirchner explains what bosses can do in such situations and outlines possible solutions presented by digital technology, also drawing on her own experience. “What you have here is a tumor and I have to assume it’s malignant.” – “Okay, so what next?” This was how a conversation went between me and a senior doctor at a hospital, as we looked at a scribbled drawing on July 25, 2017. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life. Being torn away – without preparation – from your professional setting and the place where you make all the decisions, suddenly finding yourself dependent on foreign influences, is something the self-employed and business leaders try to sweep under the carpet. I was no exception. As somebody who did regular sport and considered herself fighting-fit, the idea of having a tumor seemed highly improbable.

I’m a management consultant, so I’m used to the frequency with which decision-makers and individuals who are key to a company suddenly disappear or stay away for a long time. The consequences for businesspeople and people dependent on leaders are dramatic, especially if there’s no Plan B. Just two weeks without a boss in the business is enough to put some companies in deep water and threaten their existence. Every year, some 4,050 companies across Germany – with over 60,000 employees – have to declare insolvency after unexpectedly losing a company director. We know from experience that people find it extremely difficult dealing with the consequences of a bereavement, accident, or serious illness. Sometimes the difficulties are of an existential nature. For example, if the sole managing director of a limited company is suddenly gone, without provisions the firm is immediately unable to do anything. The managing director is the only person who is allowed to represent the company. If the managing director is the sole shareholder, there is not even a general meeting of shareholders to appoint a replacement, and this can have fatal consequences for the company. In Germany, the process of appointing an emergency director through the courts can take up to a year. This results in a large number of companies shutting down operations every year.

If I turn the clock back 25 years to when I first became self-employed, all the things I can now do in my current situation would have been unthinkable at the time. Technological advancements such as cloud services, being permanently available, the ability to exchange information beyond borders through networks, apps – there are so many things in place now, ways to work out suitable solutions and deal with a crisis. Thanks to free video communication systems like Skype or Zoom, you can take part in meetings from anywhere, exchange information, or make agreements.

The best way to do the responsible thing, safeguard a company, and secure jobs is to prepare an emergency grab bag – a kind of rescue file with clearly laid out overviews, power of attorney authorizations, key information, and checklists. Digital developments are also providing plenty of ways to put everything in place so a company can keep going if a senior manager suddenly disappears – at a reasonable cost. For example, document templates can be downloaded from the website of the German Justice Department to prepare a strategic emergency plan and make sure everything goes as it should do. There is also a Central Register of Wills for people to make individual arrangements in case of death and administer documents electronically. The Federal Chamber of Notaries offers a central register providing a register of private and official lasting powers of attorney, care, and patient decrees.

It is not difficult to pack a grab bag. Start by talking to an experienced advisor about the things that should go into the grab bag, such as: the most important people who should make certain decisions (at home, work, or both); letters of authority; documents; overviews, etc. Some things can be delegated to experts, but it’s also important to assess risks and think about long-term planning and any documentation required for interim arrangements. It makes sense to store all documents digitally, for example by ensuring somebody you can trust can access records. Information can also be stored in a deposit box held by a bank or in a (digital) safe. It is also strongly recommended that everything is checked and if necessary updated once a year, especially given that change is the only constant in life.


Elke Kirchner

Elke Kirchner is director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Healthy Organizations. The services provided by the Steinbeis Enterprise include seminars and workshops, advisory services on networked skills management, risk assessment relating to psychological stress in keeping with German occupational safety and health law, advice on the orientation of occupational health programs, support with OHM programs, absenteeism analysis, absenteeism management, and the development and introduction of structured occupational integration management.


Elke Kirchner
Steinbeis Consulting Center Healthy Organizations (Bensheim)