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When to pass the baton?

What business leaders can learn about succession planning from sport

Timing is everything – having the self-awareness and knowledge to know when to go is the difference between winning and losing.

Business leaders who are considering moving on and succession planning can learn plenty from the sporting world. Indeed, there are countless successful managers and coaches who stayed too long and saw their team – and career – decline.

However, there are also rarer instances of those who left at the perfect moment – and laid the foundations on which their successor, armed with fresh ideas, skills and impetus, could build.

A prime example is Ben Ryan. He departed as head coach of Fiji men’s rugby sevens in 2016, after a three-year stint culminated in the team winning gold at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics – the tiny Pacific island’s first-ever medal. It was, he says, “undoubtedly the pinnacle of my career”. Content that the project had been a triumph, he was not tempted to continue.

“I had set out some goals I wanted to achieve and the team wanted to achieve collectively,” says Ryan. “At the end of my tenure at the Olympic Games, those targets had all been hit. I could have hung around and tried to back it up four years later, but I knew that it was the right time to pass the baton and move on.” 

At the Tokyo Games in 2021, Fiji men topped the podium again and the women’s team claimed the bronze medal. “The 2016 success was a springboard and made people think more was possible,” he explains.

Making your move at the right moment

Ryan, currently Performance Director at Brentford Football Club, had been head coach of England men’s rugby sevens between 2007 and 2013 – and, conversely, things didn’t end well there. Even though England reached the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Russia, his last tournament in charge, he “felt no joy” and realised he had “lost his purpose” and wanted to leave.

The 51-year-old warns of the dangers of a leader staying in position when they feel like this. “It’s incredibly damaging to an organisation if someone stays on for a longer period than they should, because a staleness starts to pervade in that environment,” he says.

“You need enough safety catches in the culture for people to see that early and make some honest calls. Something that might have taken years to build can be taken down and crumble pretty quickly if people are collectively working at a suboptimal level.”

Laura Morgan, a Relationship Manager at HSBC Global Private Banking, acknowledges how challenging it is to cede control, especially for owners who developed their business from its birth. “As I’ve heard many clients say, a business is like a baby to them,” she says. “It's something that they have grown and nurtured, and to give that up is like losing a limb. It's emotional.”

But with self-awareness, enriched by a trusted group of contacts and guidance from experts, succession planning can be a huge success for everyone, whether you’re a sport or business leader, adds Morgan. “Preparation is key,” she concludes. “By having the right team of advisers, you can maximise the value for you and the business when exiting, and ensure your legacy.”

I could have hung around… but I knew that it was the right time to pass the baton and move on.
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