RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — Amidst all the frantic news about Steve Jobs and his medical leave of absence from Apple, one thought should remain paramount: Prayers for him and his family.

While Wall Street focuses on the billions of dollars of shareholder value that Apple lost Wednesday when Jobs disclosed his decision and on what his departure means for the company, let’s not forget Jobs is a human being with a family.

That said, other company executives, investors and board members should be thinking next about something else: Succession of a “key man” or “key woman” in an organization.

Does your company have a succession strategy?

(A cancer survivor, The Skinny knows full well the frailty and fragility of the human body, no matter the age. Thus the Jobs case struck a chord, and the succession topic overrode a desire to write about the continuing decline of Nortel.)

Fortunately, Jobs can turn Apple over to Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, a former IBM-er who has filled in for Jobs in the past. Can your company’s founder or chief executive turn over the reins to someone else without missing a beat?

Let’s consider some North Carolina firms. We need go no farther than Raleigh, where Red Hat needed to find a replacement for Matthew Szulik, its CEO and the world’s top Linux evangelist, when he chose to focus on his chairman role due to family health concerns. A properly organized search brought in new CEO Jim Whitehurst from Delta, and even though Whitehurst was a relative unknown, the Hatters are doing just fine.

Make no mistake, however – a bungled succession for Szulik could have devastated Red Hat.

Progress Energy lost its treasured CEO, Robert McGehee, due to a stroke in October 2007. Fortunately, Bill Johnson had been groomed to take over.

What about other firms?

What happens at Quintiles should something befall Dennis Gillings?

How about Jim Goodnight at SAS?

If David Murdock were to fall ill, who takes over at the North Carolina Research Campus?

Or Ping Fu at Geomagic?

Who is in charge at RTI International should Victoria Haynes need to take leave?

Can founder and CEO Fred Eshelman leave PPD without destroying it?

At iContact, if youngsters Aaron Houghton and Ryan Allis were to be put out of action simultaneously by health or accident, who steps in?

Scrutiny is especially harsh at privately held ventures where founders/owners such as Murdock, Goodnight and Fu hold so much power. But even Nasdaq-traded PPD marches at the pace set by Eshelman.

Executives are human, no matter age or talent. Jobs, at 53, exemplifies that.

In his letter to the company on Wednesday, Jobs said he planned to “remain involved in major strategies while I am out.” But what if his undisclosed ailment prevents that?

Succession planning, no matter the size of an organization, is a necessity, not a luxury.

Are you and your company ready for the unknowns of tomorrow?

“Key man” insurance is fine for the short term. Having a prepared key executive replacement is the best long-term investment.