What Tony Blair can teach HR about succession planning

So Gordon Brown is to succeed Tony Blair as the leader of the Labour Party and become the UK’s next prime minister.

In recent research we’ve carried out on talent strategy with our clients, we found that leadership succession is top of the agenda for most chief executives today.

Whether in politics or business, it is crucial for all stakeholders to have a good idea of what the future holds. Are there lessons to be learned from Labour’s long hello, or should Blair and Brown look to business to show them how it’s done?

Think ahead

Top marks for Blair on this one. It is widely accepted that Brown’s role as successor was decided 13 years ago. The top job is clearly critical, and we have seen in recent years the incredibly brief tenure of many chief executives. Therefore, taking time to get the leader’s succession right is a sound investment.

In business, we are seeing companies invest considerably longer timeframes into CEO succession than they may traditionally have done. Shell, GlaxoSmithKline and General Electric, to name several, identify and groom the CEO’s successor some several years in advance in a kind of extended ‘audition’.

However, fixing options too early in the game can have its drawbacks.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Succession planning should be flexible. Fixing the business’s sights on one successor several years in advance, as Blair did, leaves a lot to chance and can potentially hold the business hostage to fortune.

Blair could have learned from Stuart Rose, chief executive of Marks and Spencer. Although his retirement is still some way off, Rose recently re-shuffled his board and brought in some new faces. This enables him to groom a variety of candidates well in advance, each of whom may have merits as a potential successor.

The leadership demands at different stages of a business’s lifecycle can vary – depending on whether it requires a sharp turnaround or merely a light hand on the tiller. Therefore, presenting a range of characters and experiences to draw on when the time comes is often the best strategy.

Stand by your man (or woman)

Political commentators have alluded, at worst, to rumours of a ‘feud’ between Blair and Brown and, at best, to indifference between them. Media reports suggest that the two have not worked very closely together in recent years. However, there are significant differences between the roles of chancellor and prime minister to which Brown needs to be exposed in depth.

It is also not apparent to what extent Brown has received any formal grooming in preparation for his role. By working closely with their successor, the outgoing leader provides this vital link. British Airways’ Willie Walsh worked alongside outgoing chief executive Rod Eddington for six months prior to taking on the top job in 2005. An extended handover is the first critical stage in helping the top person’s successor fully appreciate the challenges of running the entire enterprise.

Manage the transition

New leaders generally need time and support to manage their transition to a bigger role – to help them think ‘up a level’. Ideally, this should start before they assume their new role.

While a new CEO is expected to hit the ground running from day one, it can take as long as 15 to 18 months to function fully in a bigger and more challenging role.

The question is, can the country wait that long for Brown to come up to speed?

By Maria Yapp, chief executive, Xancam Consulting

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