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Should you take a United approach to succession management?

By Niall MacKenzie - Posted on 24 April 2014

Dr Niall MacKenzie, lecturer in family business at Strathclyde Business School’s Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, discusses what we can learn from recent revelations at Manchester United…

The news of Manchester United sacking David Moyes has again thrust the issue of business succession into the limelight. Last year we covered his appointment and the role in which Sir Alex Ferguson (now of Harvard Business School) played in it.

At the time it appeared to be a smooth transition and, on the face of it, a successful succession. The new incumbent was lauded by the predecessor who stepped back from the public eye to allow his successor to settle in. Spirits and expectations were high.

However, 10 months on and Manchester United (a family business no less) are now back to square one again.  So what happened?

Put simply, football is a short-term, results driven business with little to no sentiment and Moyes did not have the team performing to the expected level. Calls for time, from Sir Alex Ferguson in particular, went unheeded and a senior player in Ryan Giggs has been installed as an interim manager for the rest of the season.

So what does this episode tell us about business and succession? Well, news of his sacking saw the share price improve, possibly explaining the decision. Perhaps more pertinently, it shows that even apparently successful succession events can unravel quickly.  This suggests that succession is not episodic inasmuch as it is a process; one which is planned for well in advance and needs careful handling and time – something which didn't seem to occur at Manchester United.

Picking and supporting the correct successor is also critical and it is here that Manchester United has received some criticism. Some have suggested that Sir Alex had too much of a say in the decision, and others have identified a lack of boardroom support for the new manager in recruiting the players needed for squad rebuilding. Both criticisms offer important insights for businesses.

Once a successor has been chosen, it is critical to provide support for them in order that they can settle in effectively.  Having spent the time to identify and choose the successor, they too must be given time.  Similarly, the outgoing leader may not be the best person to choose depending on their leadership style and exit intentions.

There are other lessons of course, but it is perhaps worth repeating the last paragraph from the previous entry on the succession at Manchester United:

Business succession, whether in family or non-family firms, has the potential to make or break a company. Managed well, it can help a company sustain its competitive advantage for years to come.  Managed badly and it has the potential to see a business unravel in a very short space of time.

What do you think the Manchester United example can teach us about the way succession planning is handled? Would your board give backing to new management or in the end is it results that matter? Let us know in the comments below…

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