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Blog: Quote
  • Writer's pictureTara Rethore

Succession Lessons from the British Monarchy

Too often, succession planning – a highly strategic activity – gets short shrift. Some would argue this fate is shared by the British Royals – readily dismissed even as their lives and contributions are scrutinized.

In many ways, the British monarchy is a family business. Yet unlike typical family businesses, it is highly visible with a reach that extends well beyond its territory. Both public and private, governmental and apolitical[i], the monarchy has the potential for great influence, particularly for causes or situations that fuel the sovereign’s passions.

When Queen Elizabeth II died, the British monarchy demonstrated the value of succession planning – even as it mourned the loss of an irreplaceable leader.

Three lessons business can learn from the British monarchy:

1) A succession plan eliminates the guesswork.

A smooth, peaceful transfer of power is one hallmark of an effective government and business. It’s also a time when clarity is critical. An actionable succession plan eliminates the guesswork and enhances clarity. Everyone knows what to do, for what purpose, and in what order. Prepared in advance, talking points facilitate clear, timely communication and business operations continue with limited disruption.

2) Planning for succession extends beyond the top job.

Typical succession plans identify an heir-apparent for the most senior role. Ideally, the plan notes current readiness to take on the role that is grounded in an annual assessment and ongoing, targeted development. This assures the heir-apparent is equipped to take the helm (or throne) quickly and seamlessly.

Importantly, the British Monarchy’s succession plan extends beyond the top job. This piece is often missing from succession planning – as I note in this short clip from an episode of Strategy Conversations© with Tara.

In a monarchy, long-standing rules govern ascension – and thus, immediately trigger other promotions or reallocation of duties and accountabilities. In effect, this creates a sequence of succession (rather than a single shift) for which each person must be prepared. A meaningful succession plan assures a ready supply of talent to take on the critical roles.

3) Business has an advantage the monarchy may not enjoy.

Good succession planning attends to both strategic and operating needs. Leaders explicitly identify the critical skills and experiences needed not only for the future – the strategic part – but also to deal with day-to-day operations. In turn, this guides talent management strategy and subsequent investment in building the skills you need to achieve your objectives.

A monarchy is hereditary: roles – and the individuals performing them – are largely dictated by birth. Yet, critical capabilities are found in roles situated throughout the organization, not just in the c-suite. Further, what’s needed for the future may not be immediately available in-house. Succession planning gives organizations the time to build the necessary capabilities. Certainly, King Charles III has been preparing to lead Great Britain and the Commonwealth for his entire life.

Business, however, is not bound by hereditary ties. There’s no obligation to promote from within. In fact, organizational assessments often reveal skills or experiences that are best obtained externally. This expands the pool of potential candidates to fill critical roles. Thus, business has an advantage the monarchy may not enjoy.

Planning for succession is a highly strategic endeavor – one that should be a regular feature atop board and executive agendas. Its aim is to assure the long-term sustainability of the organization – as demonstrated by the British monarchy.

Perhaps most importantly for the organization, a clear succession plan affords people the time and space to celebrate a leader's contributions and acknowledge what's been lost.

[i] The king/queen is the head of state. In a constitutional monarchy, all political decisions are made by the government.


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