Roth replacement search begins for Nortel

Last month’s news that Nortel Networks Corp. CEO John Roth will retire in 11 months casts more uncertainty over the beleaguered telecom giant.

It would not be a big deal had Roth’s heir apparent not resigned last week as well. Nortel COO Clarence Chandran left the company to concentrate on his full recovery from stab wounds suffered in a mugging in Singapore in 1997. Chandran had been on medical leave for six to 12 months, but the recovery process apparently requires more time and focused energy, so Chandran stepped down and resigned his seat on the Nortel board.

Had Chandran stayed and been in better health, Roth’s announcement that he’s now a lame duck may have been received with a collective industry shrug. It was always quietly understood by Nortel watchers that Chandran would succeed Roth; the only question was when.

Now the question, again, is who. And now Nortel must conduct and finish a CEO search in 11 months in a business climate that is forcing the company to fire 20,000 people, exit markets, try to sell to customers with no money to spend, and feel around in the dark for some sign of good news.

Tough times at Nortel just got tougher. Now there’s more uncertainty on top of the lack of visibility for the business.

It’s hard to forecast what will happen in the next 11 months. Business may get better, it may get worse or it may stay the same. It may take another Kafka-esque transition – like the much ballyhooed operational and cultural “right-angle turn” Nortel took after acquiring Bay Networks in 1998 – to pull Nortel out of the pits and back into the fast lane.

Who’s up for steering the course? Let the search begin…