Handing over the Reigns

Chris BallFar be it from me to get involved in constitutional issues, but I couldn’t help wondering if Spain’s King Juan Carlos’s announcement of his abdication might not be a lesson to all of us to recognise when enough is enough. Retirement decisions are often hard, though let’s face it, most 76 year olds are not hanging around any longer than they need to.


In King Juan Carlos’s case it seems, the issue is clouded by adverse opinion polls and the plummeting public image of the monarchy in Spain, arising from various scandals. His decision appears to have been in part to save the reputation of the monarchy – plus a little bit of intergenerational solidarity, perhaps!


However, one wonders whether the “job for life” notion, which only applies to a tiny number of individuals in the very top jobs (generally as heads of state or church), isn’t really a bit passé .


You could go further and describe it as a grotesquely inhumane idea, based on all sorts of peculiar fables about God given rights and so on. Who in their right mind would want to carry on until they literally drop?


The royals, by and large, don’t get a choice. (And who is to say that they want it?) But would it do any harm for them to fall in line with the rest of us at some point?


There have of course been suggestions that the Queen, now 88, should step down in favour of Prince Charles (currently 65) who could well be 70 plus by the time he becomes King. I can’t pretend to worry about such things, but come to think of it, it will be a hell of a statement about employability in later life if this does happen.


And (assuming the Prince has no objections to being described in such a way) he could use his famous willingness to express his thoughts to good effect and raise the profile of the “older worker” to excellent effect. As patron of PRIME[i]  he may choose to comment – but there again, maybe he will not.


Organisations of all kinds do need succession plans. The thought that they should be based on mere human mortality would be anathema to most sensible people. They should in theory provide ways for good people to step aside at a time when they have given a lot and before they start to decline.


Done properly, managed succession can mean the cultural values, human capital and reputation of the organisation are all enhanced by handing over the reins to a newcomer.


People who carry on for a long time can be doing a great job – let’s say that very clearly. But there are cases where they do untold harm.


Leaving aside royalty, one can think of a few heads of state that most people would have been glad to see the back of, doing nobody a service, unwilling to retire at any price! Perhaps this is a problem in family businesses too. I wouldn’t know, but I assume it is.


In organisations, as in states, the ability to say “enough is enough” is a touchstone of maturity. Decisions about the right time to go should consider the needs of the organisation as well as those of the individual.


Tradition can get in the way, but sometimes it can be shoved aside, as we saw in the Catholic Church last year. Pope Benedict became the first Pontiff to resign in 600 years when he stood down in February 2013.


Can anyone say it was a bad decision? His successor Pope Francis, is the kind of Pope to whom even non-believers (like me) can warm.


Not that Benedict’s idea of retirement was exactly the intention of invigorating the Church. He had waning personal health and mental powers, and a lot of nasty stuff in the background about priests’ sex scandals and murky financial dealings.


The desire to get away from it all and start afresh on a new page, can stimulate the retirement juices wonderfully! In Benedict’s case, it was enough to make a deeply conservative Pope, steeped in the tradition that “Popes work till they drop”, hang up his tiara.


How far is all this relevant to secular and non-royal organisations which it is the lot of most of us to inhabit?  Well, no normal organisation could put up with the “waiting for dead men’s shoes” approach to succession.


The departure of an ancient (and safe) pair of hands at the top might be thought to cause unwanted ripples, but there surely comes a time for everyone to step down. A sense of timing is called for.


Some business leaders do seem to carry on for ever, though less so in Europe than in the USA and Japan. (In a list of the 16 oldest company CEOs I have seen, not a single British name appears. (There is one each from Belgium and Italy). How odd and what is the explanation? Less comfortable board rooms in Europe, perhaps?


As the Guardian reminds us today, in the last eighteen months ageing monarchs in both the Netherlands and Belgium have stood down in favour of younger heirs. Despite the speculation, our own Queen seems unlikely to follow suit.


Quite apart from a total absence of scandal or controversy surrounding her personal conduct, she seems well able to delegate all the gadding around her empire to younger members of the family.


It would be nice to think however, that the traditions of “dying on one’s job” could be tempered with an over-riding sanity that older workers everywhere deserve the right to retire. At the same time younger people at some point, might get the right to take up the reins.


One condition however, would be to have a worthy successor in place. A case for an election perhaps?


Chris Ball

Chief Executive

TAEN – The Age and Employment Network

[i] the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise


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