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What the Manchester United débâcle reveals about succession planning

Apr 27, 2014 Management, Sunday Nation

I knew I would have to write this article; the only question was how soon.

In August last year I tweeted: “Pep Guardiola will be just fine; David Moyes will not.” I was responding to the appointment of Guardiola and Moyes as managers of two of the top teams in world football: Bayern Munich and Manchester United, respectively. After watching the new managers’ first few games in charge, I felt confident enough to make a prediction on Twitter.

Guardiola subsequently won Germany’s Bundesliga championship by a country mile; Moyes has just been sacked by Manchester United after a truly appalling ten months in office, leaving his team languishing in seventh place in the English Premier League.

I do not have any powers of prophecy, please note, and no streets need be washed for me. This was an educated guess, based on decades of watching organizations, their leaders and their successors. I don’t even make predictions, unless they’re no-brainers. And I was wrong as well as right: I didn’t expect the implosion to be this rapid.

The problem here was not the unfortunate Mr Moyes; it was the long, hugely successful reign of the man who preceded him, Sir Alex Ferguson. I chronicled Ferguson’s achievements on this page when he retired. Unfortunately, his leadership legacy does not now meet the final test: that of creating other leaders.

Here’s the thing: you never allow a leader, no matter how great or successful, to unilaterally choose his or her own successor. That privilege should never have been granted to Ferguson.

Why not? Leaders have a tricky ego problem when it comes to handing over: they don’t want anyone who will dismantle their legacy; and they don’t want anyone who will rise to even greater heights without using the foundation set by the great incumbent. This is a quiet, unspoken, unacknowledged psychological issue that bubbles under the surface of every succession situation.

So, if you allow the incumbent to choose the successor alone, he will invariably select someone who will play safe. The incumbent will almost never choose anyone who will do something fresh and different – even though, after years of doing something one way, a radical refresh is probably what is needed.

Ferguson, and the board of directors above him, failed miserably in this regard. He was apparently given carte blanche to choose his man, and he duly chose Moyes: a manager who had never won any major trophy in his career; who had only managed to keep his former club, Everton, hovering in upper-mid-table mediocrity; and who, most damningly, had a play-safe footballing philosophy that was the antithesis of Ferguson’s swashbuckling, go-for-it signature style. But Moyes adored Ferguson, and shares his Scottish roots. And so he became ‘The Chosen One.’

The rest you know. Moyes rapidly killed off United’s attack-minded ethos; baffled his own players; couldn’t handle the media glare at a huge club; and lost home and away to the team’s most detested rivals, as well as to his own former club. I repeat, though: it’s not his fault. He was the victim of the decisions of others, who plunged him into depths he had never before encountered.

Here’s what should have happened. United’s board should have appointed a top-notch succession committee, with real expertise in world football. That committee should have begun work years before the actual handover, and considered the world’s best targets. Ferguson should have had a big say in the decision, but not the only say. And he should have been required to develop and groom one or two insiders over time, to add internal candidates to the pot. Then, a real decision could have been made.

Instead, one man decided. The consequences may reverberate for some time, for the ship, when rocked so severely, takes time to right itself. Ferguson now teaches leadership at Harvard University. Hopefully, he’s not being asked to include succession planning in his teaching plan.

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