A great advantage of a large corporation is supposed to be the large pool of talent in which its leaders can find and groom high achievers and successors. So I was amazed to find myself working recently with a large business that has no succession plan for any of its top executives.

The problem was highlighted by the death of one senior leader. She had been ill for several years and perhaps her bosses and colleagues felt it would be unsupportive and crass to start thinking of a successor for her. They might, alternatively, have removed a big cause for concern. In any event, they did nothing. So her death precipitated a crisis: no viable permanent candidate for the position existed within the business.

That would be bad enough. But the same problem persisted in the level below her and the level below that. Instead, within a complex hierarchy, there were layers of seasoned executives nearing retirement, those who were burned out, or both. The pool of talent was empty.

Internal appointments have a far greater chance of success than external ones. (This is something few headhunters will tell you.) So grooming successors matters not just to facilitate seamless transitions but to make it more likely that everyone in the organization will succeed. Instead, this company now finds itself frantic in a search for that top spot, still blind to how few candidates they have for the many vacancies that will be revealed in the next few years.

You could--and I do--ask where HR is in this scenario. But the deeper question is this: if no one is paying attention to the people who drive the business, everything else is in jeopardy. The healthiest companies are always characterized by organic talent development. Any time a company makes a big, expensive outside appointment, shareholders and employees beware.