The often ignored realities of talent management (#5): Succession planning is *actually* important (aka – lessons from the Conservatives)

Like a lot of people I suspect, I’m finding myself tweeting and blogging more about political topics than I ever suspected I would. My tweet this morning:

was less about Boris or the Conservative Party or even the ridiculous idea of ‘family values’ and more about how, in less than a decade, we have seen the media totally shift from a values based approach when it comes to the suitability of a politician to be UK Prime Minister.

Concepts such as those tied up in the attacks on Miliband (values, personality, etc) will be all too familiar to those who work in organisations – especially for those who work directly in organisational design, talent and learning roles.

The argument I’d like to make here is that since 2016 we have seen, through the office of Prime Minister but particularity from the Conservative and Unionist Party (as the pipeline for PMs), a total failure of organisational design. Now, in many ways, Labour has of course been suffering the same problems, with failed bids to change the leader. Therefore, this can be seen as an example of how dysfunctional organisations (in this case political parties) can be without clear talent management.

Those who are anti-Cameron, anti-Johnson, anti-May, anti-Corbyn, etc. would of course like to shine the light on leadership and say (from a classical business studies perspective) that none of these people have sufficiently engaged their organisations, they did (or have) not bring people along through change management, etc. There have been some very good articles written on what this means for leadership in Britain, for example see this 2016 article from the New Yorker that almost entirely still applies. However, rather than leadership, I’d say the ultimate issue here is succession planning. These organisations have been allowed to lurch between extremes (such as between the left v right of parties or between different personality types). At the same time both Labour and the Conservatives have grown in terms of membership, albeit after massive drops in the 90s and 00s (as a % of voting population anyway). In effect we’ve seen the classic industry issue, a dilution of values and behaviours as organisations have changed, grown and splintered.

Look back at the 2016 leadership ‘campaign’ and it is bizarre that Boris Johnson seems to have got support from basically quitting and refusing to work with PM May. In other words, he’s now the best candidate because they’ve gone down the route of isolating any ‘remain’ elements in the party and positioning himself as internal opposition. His behaviour in an organisational context would be seen as toxic. Yet he is now supported by the same MPs who in 2016 “wouldn’t back Johnson without Gove alongside him” and who “suddenly…weren’t answering their phones or had turned them off” when Gove ‘switched’. Now Boris is seen as the ‘best of a bad bunch’ by many, if only because he is entertaining. Indeed Michael Gove really needs reminding that in 2016 he kept saying that he didn’t want to be PM, so why does he keep going for it?.

In the quarrels between Blair and Brown, the abandonment of high office by Cameron and Osborne and now the ‘internal opposition’ of Boris taking over from May we’ve seen these organisations fail with transitions. Whatever happens in the next few weeks there is a desperate need for parties to groom potential leaders better but also to cast the net beyond the ‘Westminster bubble’ so increasingly distrusted by voters. While Cameron had a long ‘apprenticeship’, serving under leaders such as Michael Howard, you suspect the two main political parties need to be much smarter if they are to survive.

So, the next time you think ‘succession planning’ is boring, too hard or just impossible (because, for example, the market changes too often or people move in and out too much to manage) just think how much of a mess your organisation could be in with no talent pipeline and no retention of organisational knowledge. Then invest in talent and knowledge management and rejoice!