Nick's Blog

Succession success

I heard about a CIO leaving their job recently, one who hadn’t been appointed long ago. Their appointment followed the long term tenure of the previous incumbent who had a taken up a new role in the same business.

I wasn’t surprised. It happens a lot, and not just in business, but in politics and in sport too. Just think of Sir Alex Ferguson who was the incredibly successful manager of Manchester United for 26 years. He was replaced by David Moyes, who just about managed to last a season, before Louis van Gaal lasted just two. Statisticians call this ‘regression to the norm’. In this example the mean tenure has regressed to around 10 years from the three managers mentioned. If Jose Mourinho, Man Utd’s current manager, lasts around 2 seasons (his norm before he upsets everyone at the club and leaves) then the mean will be just over 7 ½ years – still a long time for a football manager (average tenure 1.31 years), but much closer to the overall norm from the outlier of more than a quarter century which Sir Alex managed.

This suggest that, statistically, if the average tenure is around 3 years for a CIO, and someone is in place for 6 years they will be replaced by someone who doesn’t very long. Of course, like tossing a coin, you won’t get a perfect distribution of heads following tails very often.

This is just statistics. It doesn’t have to be that way in your situation but why does it happen? Often, it’s ego.

If you are considering a career move you should look very carefully at the previous incumbent’s record, their longevity and why they are now moving on. Just standard due diligence, but I don’t see it happening that often. If you replace someone who has been in place for a long time there are two possible major reasons why they’ve left: they haven’t moved with the times and a new broom is needed; or, they have been incredibly successful and rewarded with another bigger job (either inside or outside the organisation). Act in the wrong way for the situation and trouble will arise. Continuity when someone didn’t move things forwards will be as disastrous as changing everything when your predecessor fitted in really well and was doing a great job.

But don’t assume everything will be great if your predecessor was in role just for a short time. Divorced people are more likely to get divorced again than the population as a whole. Companies who have fired an exec recently know how to do it without their world falling apart and will do it again. So why did they only have a short time in role? High flyer or failed to get to grips with the challenges? Perhaps they replaced a long term incumbent and set about changing the wrong things.

But the serious point is that you need to deeply understand what you are moving into and why there is a vacancy. It’s not necessarily something that is easy to find out. Some people have a vested interest in you not finding out. But it’s important to know as much as possible and not let your ego get in the way of sensible choices both in the position you take and in your desire to make a mark. You need to make the right mark in the right place.

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