The death of the longest-serving and much-admired British monarch Queen Elizabeth II has prompted reflection on a life of duty and devotion. From the exact moment her eldest son became King Charles III, the meticulous leadership succession process planned years in advance began. It's a monarchy master class. The Royal Household can teach business leaders much about this lost art of succession planning and successor preparation.
Preparing for Instant Power
Most executives crave power, but few are prepared when it comes, especially when it's unexpected. You might be promoted after rapid growth, a scandal, or a resignation. You may find yourself thrown into the deep end in a crisis. For example, during the pandemic, Zoom, Netflix, and Peloton lurched into the spotlight under the watchful eyes of regulators, analysts, media, and customers.
Businesses laboriously craft perfect plans to achieve success, yet few plan for succession. What happens if you are acquired, go public, or become in urgent need of leadership change?
As a behavioral scientist and board adviser, I find leaders struggle with sudden power. Research states that 57 percent find decisions harder than expected. Why? They're not prepared, because businesses neglect succession planning. It's a skill the monarchy has mastered with generations of well-established precedent, protocols, and processes.
Royal Lessons in Success-ion Planning
I identify seven royal lessons to help business leaders succeed long-term.
1. Be Prepared.
Fast-moving firms and startups have little time to prioritize planning over critical revenue streams. In times of unexpected transition, managers scramble to dig out dusty succession plans -- if they exist. Early in my career at BlackRock, a company with seven founders that exploded into a $10 trillion Wall Street behemoth, the brand strapline was "Opportunity favors the prepared mind." Its simple premise reflected its core mission to find investment returns for clients. The broader application was clear -- expect the unexpected and be mentally prepared. The monarchy was prepared for the transition.
2. Embrace the Future.
Short-term executives don't adequately consider their own succession, stuck in monthly deliverables and quarterly earnings cycles. It's hard. Psychologists call it present bias. It's why individuals don't take out insurance or plan for retirement. But British broadcasters, the government, and the Royal Household secretly organized the transition logistics. TV teams were assembled, archive footage collated, and interviewees lined up. Within 24 hours, details of the extensive 10-day covert project, code-named London Bridge, were released.
3. Get Granular.
Everyone watches the passing of leadership reins. Customers crave continuity. Competitors crave strife. Those who engage corporate communications can learn much from the choreography of official royal processes. I found it utterly impressive to watch everything spring into sequenced action. It was project management at its finest, from the statement on Buckingham Palace gates to bell peals, gun salutes, flags at half-mast, online condolences, and a prime minister's speech. Consultants surely marveled at such seamless execution.
4. Make It Personal.
Leaders who want to preserve their legacy prepare. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, extensively preplanned logistics and tailored his final arrangements. Don't leave your most important message to others by delegating communications. Leave on your terms. Personal touches are expected at leaving events.
Royal Lessons in Success-or Preparation
The arrival of instant power can overwhelm the unprepared. While Prince Charles trained for 73 years, few have such apprenticeships. Consider the following lessons:
5. Seek Counsel.
Transitions may be easier in large organizations when advisers or private secretaries lavish counsel on the newly appointed. When resources are scarce, few have the luxury of mentors. Ironically, that's when they're most needed. You don't need Winston Churchill, unlike Queen Elizabeth. Businesses that provide independent support can protect new leaders from reputation land mines.
6. Manage Vulnerability.
Despite popular advice to reveal vulnerability, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues emotional leakages don't always bode well. During uncertainty, audiences crave leadership confidence, not doubt. King Charles III delivered a heart-felt yet controlled first national address, despite his personal grief. Balance openness and authenticity with what the audience needs in the moment.
7. Control Your Brand.
Be an authority in authority. On his first day as monarch, King Charles greeted palace mourners and connected with his people. Many genuinely want to support new leaders. He was inclusive and decisive, announcing changes to working commitment, appointing his own Prince of Wales successor, and acknowledging his team's value. This set the stage for the effective transition of power.
Over three decades in investments, I've noticed how, while seemingly obvious, new leaders forget to allow time to grieve the past. Respect heritage. It's a common mistake to criticize predecessors, as it diminishes integrity.
Most businesses don't have the bench strength of a monarchy to oversee their transitions. Queen Elizabeth II shows that what matters is not the passing of a mantle but the legacy that passes with it.
That requires preparation, the royal way.