Why you should never pick your own successor

Football is an odd industry. There are surprisingly few instances where events in its universe can be related to the more conventional world of traditional business. It’s easy to draw such parallels with the big story this week, though. As David Moyes walks out of the door at Manchester United for the last time, news outlets are falling over themselves to explain how and why things went wrong over the course of this season. In my opinion, the failings started long before then, when Sir Alex Ferguson was granted free rein to choose who would take over from him. When so much rides on top-level management decisions in today’s economy, is it ever right that bosses get to appoint their successors?

As is the case with many other great businessmen and leaders, it seemed by the end of his tenure as though Ferguson could do no wrong. He had been proved right so many times over a quarter of a century in charge that the directors must have thought his final decision as manager – to appoint his own replacement – would be sure to turn out well. This sentimentality from Man United’s directors was misplaced. Ferguson thrived in management by focusing on himself and his players, not assessing and hypothesising who would do best in his role. His inability to be impartial has led to a crisis with long-term repercussions. The directors should have foreseen this, despite the level of Ferguson’s influence.

Having said this, there is no doubt that Moyes under-performed in his role. He was an experienced manager who knew what it was like to achieve good things in a big job, but it was still clear for all to see that he could not be trusted with another season in charge. Paul Hayward’s article in the Telegraph gives a good indication of how Moyes failed to grow into his new position: “culture shock overwhelmed him. He changed too much, not too little, upsetting the patterns that had served the club so well.” Often, those taking over from great performers struggle to implement change, feeling that they are unnecessarily shaking things up. Moyes seems to have taken things too far the other way.

Perhaps Moyes will take some comfort from the fact that he is by no means the only leader to have struggled in living up to an eminent predecessor. Looking to the business world, there are similar dramas playing out as we speak; how is Philip Clarke going to step out of the shadow of Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco, for example? This piece by Dominic Sandbrook even compares the situation at Man United to John Major’s succession of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative leader almost 25 years ago, when his relative lack of charisma worked against him.

In Harvard Business Review’s wonderful dissection of Ferguson’s reign, published last year, the man himself is quoted as saying: “building a club brings stability and consistency.” But the culture of success, in football and business alike, has changed beyond belief since Ferguson took over at Man United. Clubs, and businesses, are now truly global, with money becoming more and more influential in decision-making. It seems only right that an executive board should have the final say on these crucial appointments, without the individual sway of a past great.

So what does Moyes’ fate tell us about succession planning at the top? And can you think of any examples where business leaders have anointed a successful heir? Let me know at moira@thembsgroup.co.uk, and have a lovely weekend.