“[…] that I should say good-night until it be ‘morrow.” Shakespeare, of course: neither the words nor the sentiment were very likely to be those of a football manager. In a sport – and a major business – that inspires such passion, ‘love’ – at least for the manager – can leave the stadium faster than a rock star fleeing the teenybopper crush. At the end of the day, Brian (the words that should start all expressions of football philosophy), it’s all about the numbers. A string of poor performances by the men on the pitch (or, as Charlie Brooker sees them, “22 millionaires ruining a lawn”), and the man who only stands on the pitch for PR opportunities is history. The love may not be lost, but it might be rudely tossed in a plastic sack in the boot of the departing Jag fairly pronto. (Any team managers reading please note: it’s acceptable for departing female Prime Ministers to wave tearfully through the rear window, but footie managers should be prepared for possible ridicule.)
Football, however, seems out of the norm for business. If nothing else, most industries would struggle to survive the churn rate (which does raise the question about where responsibility for team performance ultimately lies, and makes the manager/coach relationship one that might be instructive as a parallel to that between senior leaders and HR – have a read of an early article here about Brian Clough and his relationship with Peter Taylor, for example). Leaving the stage is always unavoidably personal for the individual doing the leaving: the art of the elegant departure lies largely in remembering the bigger picture, and letting go in the way that best serves the interests of those who will remain. This is the thorny issue of legacies, and who they are for: we’ve explored the topic before, commenting at the time:
Your legacy is fundamentally about those you leave it to, rather than about you (which is why the media were less than supportive of Tony Blair’s public concern about his): focus not on being a giant, but on having shoulders that will bear the weight of those that follow.”
Those shoulders must also be ready to be withdrawn when the succeeding giants have their own feet on the ground and are moving forward. It’s like children leaving home: the parent must come to terms with the fact that something that’s been a major part of their life – raising them – has run its course, and it’s now their turn. What’s more, they have to do whatever comes next for them: if they remember you fondly, turn to you for advice and thank you for your help in preparing them, that’s great. But your part has been played: writing new lines for yourself at the end of the script won’t necessarily improve the play.
That doesn’t make the interplay of business planning, emotion and ego any less difficult. The second episode of Radio 4’s Follow the Leader (which The Graduate wrote about a few days ago) covered this in part: there was humorous conjecture about the fingernail marks on the doorframes of 10 Downing Street as some leaders clung to power. Even elected positions don’t always save a leader from being dethroned: a team that sees its public reception declining inexorably can turn against even the most powerful or strident leader eventually. You could argue – and probably should – that the wisest leader (and not just in politics) should always have the succession in mind, not least as the wider world – be they an electorate, or a heady brew of shareholders and business analysts – will have their own perceptions.
Perceptions undoubtedly matter. Take, for example, the recent history of BP, and former CEO Tony Hayward’s notoriously unfortunate remark that “I want my life back”. (Interestingly, searching the BBC’s website, Hayward had form when it came to remarks that might be seen as less than fortunate – about safety – even before he became CEO. BP also had previous form with CEOs standing down after tarnishing their own icons. We wish new CEO Robert Dudley well.)
It’s also illuminating that the recent announcement that Steve Jobs is taking medical leave from Apple should lower their share price. Having an iconic leader may play to our love of the caricature of the crusading, pioneering and adventurous individual, but it can also put all the metaphorical eggs in one basket. As Rory Cellan-Jones has commented on the BBC website:
Steve Jobs is not only the public face of the company, at the launches of new devices like the iPad, he is involved in every minute detail of Apple products.
So for the last half dozen years every hint, every rumour about his health has sent shockwaves through the investment community and caused Apple’s share price to plummet.”
Essentially, investors are worrying that they too much invested in Apple because Apple in turn has too much invested in Steve Jobs. While he may well be involved ‘in every minute detail’ (and we really couldn’t say how far this is true), Apple has over 30,000 other employees worldwide, including researchers and product designers. That degree of personal impact might in more fortunate circumstances (and we sincerely wish Mr Jobs good health) be almost flattering, but for Mr Jobs’ health to be so crucial to Apple’s is surely an organisational weakness.
One quotation we’ve recycled frequently on this blog came from Anita Roddick:
I think leaders should encourage the next generation not just to follow, but to overtake.”
In the sense that leadership must be passed on, this must at some point be true: despite the scrapping of the compulsory retirement age and the rise in life expectancy, even the most iconic leader with the greatest reluctance to take that final curtain call remains merely mortal. But the adjustment from serving by leading to serving by leaving remains a difficult one, as the departing leader comes to accept that by leaving an inheritance we must accept that is ceases to be ours to manage. As a side note, I’m struck by that fact that Roddick left much or her fortune to charities, as Warren Buffett similarly intends. For each this was a moral decision, in Buffett’s case as he believes that “you should leave your kids enough to do anything, but not enough to do nothing” and has spoken disparagingly of dynastic wealth as “the lucky sperm club”.
(I’m reminded of a friend who argues that, above an allowed maximum level, Inheritance Tax should be set at 100%: if the point of the tax is to incentivise, this would encourage the coming generation rather than the present one. (My counter-argument runs along the lines of acceptability of that possibly being closely linked to ring-fencing the tax take so that the revenue is spent on investing in the future infrastructure that will enable that next generation to succeed. Many saloon bars have been bored beyond reason eavesdropping on that one, as you can probably imagine.)
Whatever our personal morals and motivations, however, the curtain call always awaits. For those of us whose circumstance or health drops the curtain on us midline, managing our departure and handover in an orderly manner is necessarily tricky – but that doesn’t excuse us from being prepared for it to happen. Yet this is a neglected topic in the leadership of literature – possibly as ‘stepping down’ is seen as an admission of failure or a concession that our contribution is complete (which comes with associations with either age or quality that hover on the edge of being classified as ‘failure’, or carry a perceived whiff of mortality). One article I did find at McKinsey Quarterly (free subscription required to read the full piece) dropped a heavy hint in its title – Making the most of the CEO’s last 100 days. Admitting a lack of in-depth research even at McKinsey of this oddly neglected topic, they do comment from observation:
There’s no simple list of actions departing CEOs should take; planning the outgoing transition is more art than science. And of course, each individual must find a transition style that’s consistent with his or her personality and the organization’s culture. That said, we’ve seen several CEOs benefit from asking themselves a few straightforward questions. The answers allow departing CEOs to create a short list of crucial actions to complete in their last days with a company.”
The questions are necessarily generic but are geared around encouraging the departing CEO to prioritise, document their plans for sharing with their board, and putting their successor (whether or not they have been identified) in as strong as possible position. As has been pointed out, this blog mentions Doris Day more often that might be thought normal for a ‘business blog’, so I’m going to disagree with her for a moment. Take a look at the following lyric:
Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
The future is not ours to see, but fatalism isn’t the answer either. Even being prepared for the day you’re no longer needed is a form of being prepared, and an important one (and not just for you). The manager may be leaving the stadium, but the team must play on: doing whatever you can to make sure the team is as strong, well-structured and financially sound as possible is a better legacy than either a statue to you in the car park or just leaving them to fate.