Whether you are Manchester United or Grimsby, succession planning is vital

<span>Photograph: Tim Goode/PA</span>
Photograph: Tim Goode/PA

In a past interview I was asked about my proudest career achievement. Instinctively, I answered that it was seeing Simply Business, where I served as CEO for seven years, get much better and bigger after my departure. This wasn’t false modesty on my part but was grounded in my belief of the vital role of succession planning for any CEO or leader. I’ve always maintained that one’s contribution is diminished if a business relies solely on any individual for its continued success.

When Sir Alex Ferguson retired as Manchester United’s manager in 2013 he had presided over 27 years of unparalleled success and a haul of 38 trophies. A 2012 case study from Harvard Business School entitled Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United stated: “He was the ultimate decision-maker on almost every football related aspect at United.” United’s then CEO, David Gill, said: “Steve Jobs was Apple. Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United.”

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In part, this unrivalled concentration of power is both the reason behind United’s success in the Ferguson era and the lack of it since. This isn’t so much a critique of his monumental successes and undeniable leadership skills, but rather a reflection on the fact that a leader’s effectiveness is also measured by the organisation’s ability to sustain success after they leave. Jobs’s legacy is Tim Cook. Ferguson’s is Moyes, Giggs, Van Gaal, Mourinho, Solskjær, Carrick, Rangnick and Ten Hag.

“Key-person dependency” can be managed effectively in two ways. First, by developing a clear, long-term strategy that guides the organisation’s direction and goals. Second, by integrating the head coach or manager into a more collaborative decision-making framework. This collective structure ensures that the departure of a successful leader does not disrupt the established system, allowing for a smooth transition and continuity of success.

A prime example of this approach is Brighton’s recent management transition. When Graham Potter, arguably one of the best young coaches in the world, moved to Chelsea, Brighton adeptly introduced Roberto De Zerbi into their framework. This seamless integration enabled them to maintain and even build upon their trajectory of success, demonstrating the resilience and effectiveness of their organisational structure.

In October, we decided to replace the Grimsby Town manager and assistant, Paul Hurst and Chris Doig, a process that stands out from the business world’s norms. In typical business scenarios, it’s unusual to dismiss someone and expect their replacement to begin within four weeks. We refrained from engaging in discussions with potential managers until we had finalised the exit arrangements, out of respect for Paul and Chris.

In football there exists a prevailing understanding that the most critical aspect of a manager’s contract revolves around the terms of their potential dismissal. This perspective seems to accept dismissal as an eventuality, almost a matter of when rather than if, which markedly differs from the conventions in other industries where such practices might be considered a strange construct in relation to senior hires, especially when you are trying to attract talent to improve your organisation. The established pattern in football, where underperformance leads to termination with compensation, is disconcerting and revealing, shedding light on the sport’s unique employment culture. It’s an upfront agreement that if you falter, you will be compensated and depart. This arrangement feels like an intrinsic part of the complex bargain made, amid public debate surrounding one’s capabilities at every stage of the season.

Recently, we developed a comprehensive strategy document, outlining our goals for the upcoming years. This included an indicative “game model” – a term we use to describe our desired approach and tactics. Additionally, the document provided a clear picture of the ideal structure for incoming leadership and the specific attributes such leaders should possess. We believe it’s imperative for any organisation to continuously monitor the market for succession planning and try to minimise over-reliance on key individuals.

This is particularly vital for organisations poised for success, where senior staff are likely to progress to bigger opportunities. As part of our proactive approach, we conducted a desktop study to identify head coaches who would fit into our framework and whom we realistically stood a chance of attracting. It’s worth noting that our search extended beyond the UK, underscoring our dedication to finding the most suitable candidates, irrespective of their location.

The position attracted more than 50 applicants who applied directly, via their agents or LinkedIn. From this extensive pool, we quickly filtered out those who didn’t feel like an upgrade. We then sent the remaining group a detailed job specification, inviting them to apply against the specific characteristics and skills we required. These criteria included a commitment to evidence-based methodologies, a willingness to engage with our academy and a proven ability to enhance individuals and teams through innovative coaching and personal development.

Beyond the formal specifications, I was interested in candidates with intellectual curiosity, not just within the realm of football but someone eager to draw insights from other industries, leaders, and sports. A member of our recruitment team engaged in preliminary discussions with about 12 applicants and then the shortlisted candidates participated in Zoom calls for a more in-depth evaluation.

Eventually, we narrowed it down to two standout individuals, whom I invited to my home to present their strategies to our board. After a thorough, yet accelerated process, we decided on David Artell as the first choice to be GTFC’s head coach. David is recognised as one of the most forward-thinking and astute younger British coaches in football and impressed us deeply with his knowledge and thoughtfulness.

One statement from his initial interviews particularly resonated with me: “The key thing is that there’s a plan … quite a lot of other clubs think that I’m the plan.” This perfectly encapsulates our aim to establish a clear strategy, “game model” and shared responsibility for the club’s future.