Succeed Where Even Churchill Failed: Creating a Sound Succession Plan

Succeed Where Even Churchill Failed: Creating a Sound Succession Plan

The UK’s renowned prime minister, Winston S. Churchill, is hailed on our shores as a champion of freedom and statesmanship.

Over yonder, in his home country, he’s seen rather as a nightmare. Recognizing his triumphs, they recall his foibles and failures: his terrible record of meddling, micromanaging and other follies. Worst – at least in conservative minds – was his failure at succession planning. If this payoff seems too neat, wait for the story.

Churchill earned his reputation in the First World War. In 1914, he was First Lord of the Admiralty, managing the forces of the globe’s preeminent naval power. He botched it. Flung from power, he served penance in Western Front trenches. For a time, they say, another future leader, infinitely detestable – Adolf Hitler – was across the wire, manning the line as a common soldier. Oh, for a lucky shot, Winston must have lamented.

Called back to government service when the Allies were foundering in 1917, Churchill was tapped for Munitions Minister, a vital post. Some coalition partners accepted his office on condition that they never had to deal directly with that ‘arrogant meddler’. Churchill served admirably, attended the Peace Conference in 1919, but was kicked out by voters as socialism took hold in the parlous postwar years. Later, they called him back and he made history.

Churchill’s leadership in the second war-to-end-war was heroic in Greek proportion: he took the premiership in the ruins of defeat, when invasion by sea and air looked imminent. He rallied morale, organized the war economy and built effective alliances, even with odious partners like Stalin.

On a few occasions, addressing commoners blitzed out of their homes by the Luftwaffe, he made the mistake of sounding the contemporary battle cry: “We can take it.” Reportedly, he was sent back to his Downing Street air-raid shelter with advice on what he could take, and where they’d administer it. Churchill’s leadership was respected but without affection – they knew him too well.

As the war wound down victoriously, even before the final gun sounded, he was voted from office. His successor, Anthony Eden, might well have his picture posted beside the dictionary entry for ‘hapless’. He managed two ineffectual years, the beginning of his nation’s decline into a grey, sullen backwater. The Brits have recovered but not without monumental struggle. All for want of a plan.

It’s odd, because Churchill was famous for his imagination – he was the original idea man, a veritable I-have-it! machine. In our office, we have a like-minded colleague, who ever-argues for improvement. I’ve revised the annual strategy – thoughts? Here’s a few new proposals for articles, marketing, videos, graphics, color schemes, tables, e-books for clients – write that one up, Tom. Anything as long as it’s innovative, and let’s have it pronto.

He’s wonderful, fantastic, the guy who takes the engine from purr to roar – but sometimes, I wish he’d desist. Just for a bit, mind; I need time to think.

Overwhelmed: that’s the mood these days. Professionals feel it and I bet the schoolkids do, too. Fear is overrated – this is the thing called life, we can take it. The tough part is finding time to mull things over.

Virtual ink has been spilled, as if from a tanker on the rocks, on how we’re in a new era and all the rules have changed. I beg to differ: the pandemic shines a harsh light on our preparations, surely, but has revealed only ancient wisdom, sharp as flint, ignored at peril. Succession planning is a shining example.

Let’s run it down. Our fundamental vulnerability is plain to even the ostriches now: eventually, we all down tools. It might be retirement, followed by decades of ease, or it could be the ‘red bus’ – the hurtling, fatal appointment an often-soused compadre endlessly, blearily, warned me was lurking. He sobered up finally, missing that rendezvous, at least, but the curious prescience of the bar-leaner stands in relief. Live while you can, he cautioned, whereas I, ever steady, even with glass in hand, counsel a board meeting.

Business masters, family overlords and simple souls all: please, set your agendas. First, as always, consider insurance. Business continuity can be assured if owners insure one another sufficiently to cover the purchase of a lost partner’s shares. Mayhem can result otherwise: we’ve seen it and it tends towards the gruesome. Getting blitzed out of your home is ugly enough imagery, and I used it earlier with purpose.

Churchill’s nickname was Winny; enemies found endless mirth in the obvious rhyme. Don’t be a ninny and let the joke hang on you. Cultivate replacements: identify candidates in house or search the world over, then groom them or lure them. When a key leader goes down, have talent locked in with codified powers of authority – otherwise, expect war in the boardroom and beyond.

Next up, assure that your company’s valuation is current. Market perturbations have likely changed this fundamental measure of late. Make regular adjustment a formalized habit: radical change, up or down, should be presumed as a given. If circumstances force you to sell, keep cool and reflect on the appeal of low interest rates for buyers – don’t fall for fire-sale thinking. The gift-giving option of depressed company shares is also at hand, a potentially wise play, as the gift tax exclusion now stands at $11.6 million for individuals and twice that for married couples.

We aren’t prone to bragging, but we’ve bested Lord Churchill today: all of these ideas are good ones. Review current plans, assemble your updates and come into action as if wolves are already manning the landing craft. If they strike – we mean ‘when’ – the time spent on planning today may, on reflection, seem among your finest hours.

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