Learning the art of saying farewell

THEY say a week is a long time in politics and recent events certainly support that theory.

The drama of the occasion surrounding Richard Court, Julie Bishop and Colin Barnett highlights many things which ought to be lessons to us all, but none so pressing as the importance of succession planning.

In business, the sequence of events which led to the demise of Mr Court's Liberal Party leadership are all too common.

Too often we see the person at the top seemingly hanging on too long, often in the belief that no-one can do it better than they can.

In some cases, this is true. But whose fault is that?

The bickering that follows can be more damaging than almost anything, even more so than a tired leader failing to take heed of the danger signals they would have seen during earlier years of their tenure, when they were younger and fresher.

These scenes are played out in public almost daily among the listed companies and, in private and family operations, the same themes appear time and time again, mostly hidden from the gaze of outsiders.

Clinging to leadership is almost an oxymoron. True leaders offer vision and create a strategy to achieve it. If their vision is clear and their strategy sound, they need not be there to guide it through.

Part of such a vision should be putting in place the right people to achieve that vision, including both the short-term goals and the longer-term targets. In electoral terms, the short-term might be four years but the longer term must surely be beyond the scope of any one person's term in office.

By putting such people in place and developing their potential, it pays not to disappoint them, either by changing direction too often or failing to offer them some opportunity to take responsibility for that vision.

Holding on to power unnecessarily can disappoint many, making enemies in the junior ranks or driving good workers out of their organisation.

If you want to encourage good people to stay, you have to create an environment where they can grow. It is all about testing their mettle and then timing your exit.

If politics and business have a common thread, it is the fact that both move in cycles. This is both an advantage and a danger for leaders.

Many leaders hold on longer than they should, because they believe the political or economic cycle will again turn in their favour. This is a glory days mentality.

Hoping the mood change will swing your way, offers little of the creativity or imagination which is required to achieve the longer term organisational goals.

It is all about fresh blood, new thinking, and finding people who can interpret new signals in the marketplace to keep a vision alive.

No-one knows just how long leaders should stay. Do the Americans have it right, offering their presidents just eight years at the helm?

Was Australia in better hands under Menzies for a much longer period than that?

Now he has turned BHP around, has Paul Anderson reached his use-by date?

As organisations change, so their leaders need renewal too. A family-owned structure may suit the local greengrocer but could the same organisation run Foodland as well?

This week's Business News is full of many stories where such questions could be asked.

There is no right answer to any of these, but it is worth noting that none of us, to my knowledge, is going to be here forever, so we may as well look down to see who can take our place - and make sure they are ready for it.

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