Changing the boss?

By Dan Corry | 10 February 2021
  • Dan Corry

There seem to be different theories about what one needs for successful leadership. On one side we hear a call for continuity, long-term planning, predictability. But another sees benefits from being very results-orientated, happy to change the top brass pretty often if things are not going well or you need to take the ‘next step’. They want to keep people on their toes, stop things going stale and try someone new if the old thing is not working well enough. These thoughts may be treading through our Prime Minister’s mind as he ponders a much-rumoured reshuffle.

In football ‘booting out of the boss’ gets played out very much in the public eye. Every armchair Abramovich has something to say about it. As a Chelsea FC fan, I’ve seen the temptation to keep changing the leader play out over and over again – most recently with the abrupt departure of Frank Lampard and the installation of a new manager with different approaches, different ideas, and even – so it is rumoured – different favourites among the players. Many fans bemoan this habit, but it’s hard to argue that it has not worked. Chelsea have enjoyed a pretty good record over the last two decades and often get a positive bounce in terms of results from a new manager.

Of course, one of the perils of running an organisation that is quick to fire the boss is that it forces everyone to think short-term. Why plan for next year when you’ll be gone next week? In football, if you face the sack the minute you lose a few games, you are unlikely to take risks with younger players learning their trade. Instead you deploy proven winners to keep your job secure, even if it is at the expense of long-term success for the club. Just like in football, in politics, governments who indulge in excessive reshuffling lose out severely on productivity, according to research by the Institute for Government.

So, to avoid short-termism, the case goes, we should opt for stability. Let people take risks, let people fail and learn, let people create a culture within the organisation and keep it consistent. In doing so, everyone feels secure. In some of the most successful businesses and local authorities, longevity seems to work. Take Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Or, in council land, Richard Leese in Manchester, or Steve Bullock formerly of Lewisham, or recently retired Stephen Alambritis of Merton.

But long-term tenures have their problems too. One issue is what happens when a long-term incumbent leaves. The new boss now has an ingrained culture to break into – just ask those who came straight after Alex Ferguson at Manchester United or Arsène Wenger at Arsenal how easy it was.

Staying too long can make you complacent. Yes, it’s all excitement when you first come in; new strategies are unveiled and new blood and new energy is brought in. But after a few years, do you really want to do a new strategy, to break up what you brought in? Do you really challenge what you did before? If you thought changing your predecessor’s culture was hard, try changing your own.

People can get bored or even angry with leaders – so the longer you stay, the more they plot. This happens a lot with politicians. Think of how by the end of her premiership, everyone had a gripe against Mrs Thatcher, including her own Cabinet. They threw her out, got their bounce and won the election with John Major. More recently, the switch to Boris Johnson did Conservative electoral prospects no harm at all.

In politics, whether local or national, a long-stay leader probably means you are effectively in a one-party state. Sure, it brings stability, but as we know from history it can also bring cronyism and dubious practices.

What is the way through all this? Of course, it depends what sort of organisation you are and what you are trying to achieve. Where performance is transparent, as in football, business and politics (where you live or die by the score, share price and votes), change will happen when results are bad or when the rewards make the gamble irresistable. But in more complex situations, as with councils or in charities, where true success is hard to judge, it is less likely.

Perhaps we need at least a bit of the fear of the chop to incentivise the right behaviours.

Dan Corry is chief executive of NPC – a think-tank and consultancy on third sector issues. He is a former Treasury and Downing Street economic adviser


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