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View from the Street: Under the campervan – lessons in succession planning

Phoebe O’Carroll-Moran

Client manager

It’s an issue that any successful leader grapples with. Spend long enough at the top and eventually, the question arises: who’s coming up behind you? Sometimes the baton is passed without incident. Sometimes it’s fumbled.

For exhibit A, see Holyrood, which appears to be caught in a quarter-life crisis. Following a self-destructive performance last week, 39-year-old Humza Yousaf is no more. Instead, John Swinney, 60, is lined up to take his place.

How times change. Only last year, Swinney demurred over the leadership, pointing to the party’s existing talent pool. And fair enough. Though an experienced politician, Swinney’s creds have failed the leadership test once before.

Instead, he encouraged Yousaf to stand himself. However benevolently done, it was the equivalent of pushing the guy in front of a campervan with a police aware sticker on the windscreen.

So how did we end up in this mess? The answer is the original sin of Nicola Sturgeon’s premiership: a failure to identify and invest in a capable successor. 

To avoid crashing and burning, business leaders can learn from her mistakes. Start by asking yourself the tough questions. Do you surround yourself with people smarter than you? Do you give them responsibility, space to develop and access to top level coaching? Are you guilty or hoarding power and self-obsessing? Probably yes.  

Now ask: if you fell under a bus tomorrow, what would happen? Would your enterprise be left in capable hands?  

If not, it behoves you to develop your succession plan; sometimes known as an “under the bus” strategy. So, see below my how-to guide: 

Step 1) Know your own mortality. In this respect, Sturgeon fell into a trap that has caught out many a charismatic and successful leader.  

Step 2) Talent management. For all his flaws, this is a point on which Alex Salmond bested Sturgeon. The moment he stepped down after the 2014 referendum everyone knew who would take over. Although Yousaf was her chosen successor, he was not of her calibre, and she failed to confer him her skills. Eventually, the realities of the top job drove him to self-implode.  

Step 3) Learn to let go. Having built your team, give them the scope to grow and make mistakes. Exercise control, but not too much. It was often said in Sturgeon’s favour that she had an excellent command of detail but there is a case, too, that this was a weakness. A leader should be thinking strategically, and not sweat the small stuff. 

Step 4) Prepare the ground. If you have multiple contenders for your succession (perhaps inadvisable) then manage egos to avert a bust-up. Moreover, avoid setting bear traps for your successor in the form of complex partnership arrangements.

For his part, Yousaf crashed out too quickly to apply these lessons. Swinney may have a little more time but with a minority government, renewed division and an oncoming court case, even the safest pair of hands couldn’t steer away from the cliff edge.  

Avoid his party’s fate and apply the tips above, the sooner the better. When you are at the peak of your powers, when your end feels remote, that is the time to plan.