Succession planning and communication – lessons from Manchester Utd Football Club

Last month’s announcement of the resignation of Sir Alex Ferguson, the iconic football manager of Manchester Utd Football Club for the past 25 years, has been a topic of conversation both in the sporting and business world. Organisations can learn a lot from the manner in which the announcement was made and how the transition to the new manager, David Moyes was executed.

Succession planning is a hugely important aspect to consider for any organisation, not just for the top job, but for all the key roles. Thinking about where the organisation is, in its development and what needs to be done in the organisation. Determining what are the important skillsets to bring the organisation through the next set of challenges and opportunities. Examining whether you can grow that talent internally or whether an infusion of new talent is needed. These are all things that need to be deliberate and take time.

In parallel with being prepared for leadership change, it’s important not to let uncertainty rule in an organisation, this can paralyse progress and productivity. Of course there is uncertainty in business every day, but the trick is in managing that uncertainty so that the broader organisation can focus on executing without getting caught up in the speculation, and creating unnecessary concern.

A few things about this transition process standout:

  • Committed leadership right up until the end – The potential of a leadership change was likely at some point in the near future given the existing manager was 71 years old. This fact had, over the past 5 years provided some level of public speculation, however it did not create a disruptive level of uncertainty, nor did it inhibit focus or progress in the organisation. The leader was fully committed to the organisation and provided the direction, focus and stability needed right through to the end.
  • Succession planning in action – Understanding what an organisation needs, what leadership style and skills are necessary to replace a key player, are critical in determining who the right people are for key roles. This takes time. It is obvious that lots of conversations were going on in the background over a significant period of time, to determine Alex Fergusons successor, potentially several credible and respected candidates were identified, assessed and interviewed. Ironing out the terms of the contract when the right person was identified, all takes time.
  • Communications strategy in place and not infringed upon – Clearly Alex Ferguson privately declared his intention to retire quite some time in advance of the announcement, this information needed to be managed closely. The process of identifying and agreeing terms with the incoming manager also required a level of close communication management. This was critical information for the organisation, managed in a very tight circle, it was not leaked, it was not ‘THE’ topic for public debate in the press, radio or TV prior to the announcement, so therefore there was little energy expended upon speculation of what would happen, who would get the job, what the fallout of that would be. The communication of retirement, new manager and the date by which the transition would occur were all part of one well managed and executed communication plan  which did not allow the organisation to become defocused due to public speculation.


This was a big change and for such a globally high profile sporting organisation, this would have been media heaven in terms of public speculation for weeks or even months if it had leaked out, it could have derailed the organisation due to the speculation and prolonged uncertainty. Managing the entire process of succession planning and communication planning was no mean feat and many global business organisations can learn a lot from it.

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