Susy Roberts, 30th March 2015
It’s anyone’s guess as to what prompted the Prime Minister to announce his decision to step down in five years, just before an election. While some have accused him of an inadvertent blunder or outright arrogance, the most likely explanation seems to be an ill-conceived attempt to thwart a post-election attempt to topple him.
Whatever the real reason, it’s proving to be a master class in how not to execute a succession plan. As soon as you announce when a role will become available, you raise people’s expectations that they’re going to get the job. Especially when you name the candidates!
Far from securing his position for the next parliament, Cameron has ignited a leadership contest that, should he be returned to number 10, will cause uncertainty and speculation to dominate the next five years – assuming Boris, Theresa and George are prepared to wait that long once they start positioning for his job.
What should a succession plan look like?
My experience of helping leaders to find suitable successors has proven that whether you’re running a country, business or luxury hotel, five years is simply too long a lead-time to start considering, let alone naming potential successors.
Aside from the uncertainty this creates, the economical and political landscapes are constantly changing. An individual with the best leadership potential today will almost certainly not be the best candidate in five years time, not least because someone more suitable might emerge from the ranks.
Although it’s important to identify which individuals are ready to step in now should the role suddenly become available (as it did for Tony Blair after the sudden death of former Labour leader John Smith), the key focus should be on creating a ‘pipeline’ of candidates with the potential to step into the role in 12-24 months time. These individuals should then be developed and given the opportunity to raise their profiles within the organisation prior the role becoming available.
When should you announce the decision to step down?
Once a top individual has taken the decision to step down, six months is more than long enough for any leadership contest to be played out. In an ideal world, this would be followed by no more than another six months for the old leader to stay in place once their successor has been officially announced.
By announcing his decision to go at the end of the next five-year parliamentary term so far in advance, Cameron has ignited a leadership contest that will cause uncertainty and speculation for the next five years, assuming he can last that long. Recklessly naming his potential successors adds yet more fuel to the fire.
If the intention was to secure his leadership for the next five years – “Leave Dave alone, he won’t be around forever” – the risk is that by alerting the general public to the internal party maneuvering in the run-up to a general election, there might not even be a second term to be had, let alone a third.
Should Cameron fight a third election?
If conducted properly, the Conservatives’ leadership succession plan would have been far better kept under wraps, at least until after the election, so that appropriate candidates could be identified but no potential successors named for at least another four years. That way, uncertainly could be contained and potential candidates given sufficient time to raise their political profile and demonstrate a positive impact on government, for the party to elect a new leader six months before the next election.
As to whether or not Cameron should then fight a third term, only to hand over power to someone else shortly after, this would only be acceptable if his successor was entirely committed to delivering Cameron’s vision and strategy. Instead, it would be far better if the new leader could be formally elected six months before the next election, so that he or she could put forward their own manifesto and vision to be elected on their own merits.
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