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Succession Planning: Lessons from Richard Branson

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Sir Richard Branson

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, file

“The company must be set up so it can run without me.”—Sir Richard Branson, quoted in a recent interview with HR Magazine.

Richard Branson has achieved so much in his career that he barely requires any introduction. Over the past few decades, he’s been an ever-present in the business landscape, founding new ventures, increasing his fortune and operating with something akin to the touch of Midas throughout.

But even billionaire entrepreneurs have their limitations, and Branson—who turns 60 this month—has clearly begun thinking about what the world will look like without him. As the HR Magazine piece points out “[f]ew companies have so publicly revolved around one man; Virgin is Branson and Branson is Virgin.” With that in mind, it stands to reason that any leader—even one who’s just taken the reins—could learn something about succession planning from a man whose entire career has involved being at the center of everything.

In any leadership position, the question of ego comes up from time to time—if not all the time. Often, decisions are made less for the good of the company and more because the person in charge wants to look good or be seen to be exercising their authority. Under such leaders, businesses can easily turn into personality cults—something that makes succession planning all the more difficult. If someone can’t envision a present that doesn’t involve them pulling all the strings, how likely is it that they’ll be able to think about the company beyond the end of their tenure? And yet that’s exactly what they’re expected to do.

It’s clear from the article that Branson sees the challenge of planning for the future as a question of people management: it’s about getting the right people into the right positions and empowering them to make decisions that are consistent with the company’s existing culture.

How you do that, of course, is another matter. For Branson, it’s about getting out of the way and trying not to let his reputation stifle the people he hires: “For as much as you need a strong personality to build a business from scratch, you must also understand the art of delegation. I have to be willing to step back now.”

That’s a lesson that doesn’t only apply to succession planning. Sometimes the most important thing a leader can do is to resist the urge to handle everything and let other people do the things they’re good at—for the good of the company now and in the future.

–Posted by Phil Stott,


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