What can top business leaders learn from top sports stars?


This blog appeared first on the Bradford University School of Management blog.

When should business leaders step down? I discussed this very topic recently in an interview with Chris Bond for the Yorkshire Post, following Chris Hoy’s announcement of his decision to retire from cycling.

Six-time Olympic Gold medallist and general all-round cycling legend, Sir Chris Hoy, announced his retirement from cycling at a news conference in Edinburgh last month. His incredible 19-year career saw him win 11 world titles, including a sixth Olympic gold medal at London 2012, making him Britain’s most decorated Olympian.

The art of stepping down gracefully: lessons from Chris Hoy

Chris said: “It is not a decision I took easily or lightly but I know it is the right decision … To go on for another year would be one year too far … I’m happy, I’m satisfied. There is no lingering doubt. I’ve done everything I can.”

All good things must come to an end, and Hoy exemplifies how to recognise when the time is right. Rather than continuing on past his prime, Chris has chosen to leave the sport on a high while at the top of his game. He has moved aside gracefully to allow the new generation of cyclists the chance to step up and take the baton.

As I told the YP, I believe there is a real art to stepping down gracefully – both in the timing and the manner in which you do so. And it’s a lesson that many executives could learn.

Sir Steve Redgrave famously found it difficult to leave rowing, saying “anyone who catches me in a boat again has permission to shoot me” but then couldn’t resist going back for another Olympic Games. The gamble worked out well for him, as his return Olympics in Sydney yielded a record breaking fifth gold medal, but now he has finally retired he’s become a great sporting ambassador. I imagine that Chris Hoy will do an excellent job in a similar role. That Hoy has chosen to retire while still basking in the glow of Olympic victory means that he will be remembered fondly and by his achievements. He will be remembered as the number one. Sadly, many sporting stars miss this opportunity and stay in the game much longer than they should, passing their peak and being remembered instead for their late career losses. Former boxing world champion Ricky Hatton and footballer Paul Gascoigne are perfect examples of this.

And this is a great lesson that business leaders can learn from sports stars. There are obvious dangers and pitfalls in staying on too long, whether you’re a footballer or a prime minister. In business, chief executives are moved on when it’s felt they’ve stayed too long and it’s a similar situation in politics. Margaret Thatcher should have perhaps done what Tony Blair did and gone at a time of her choosing. We remember her now for many different things but the last memory is of her being told to leave.

“Sticky senior executives” – when leaders don’t know when to be leavers

Knowing when to step down is an art in itself. But even for those leaders who identify the right time, actually making the move can be really difficult. If you have dedicated your career to business management at your organisation, or are a person who thrives on the challenges and rewards of success and leadership, giving this up can be a real wrench.

Relinquishing the power and wealth associated with being at the top can be extremely difficult. If an executive has been in their position for a very long time, it can become part of them, and be psychologically difficult to step away from. If you have lived and breathed your organisation for a very long time, there may also be fear in knowing what else to do.

But clinging on to power or refusing to step down at the right time can have wider implications and leave those you lead with a difficult legacy. It was announced earlier this week that Alfredo Saenz, chief executive of Santander, stepped down on Monday ahead of a decision that could have banned him from banking because of a criminal conviction. He was arguably skating rather close to the line here, and may not have stepped down, had he not been pushed. But by being nudged out for bad behaviour, Saenz has left his successor in choppy waters, and the organisation may suffer as a result.

Sometimes in business management you need to leave for yourself, and sometimes you have to go for the good of your own organisation. If you stay too long it can cause difficulties and the more invincible you think you are, the harder you are to replace. The trick is in knowing when to leave on a high but after you’ve secured a steady path for your successor to take the reins, with enough flexibility to make their own mark and take things forward.

Senior executives should consider and plan their departure well in advance, and certainly before they lose sight of what is important to their organisation’s key clients and target market, who may be much younger than them.

4 steps to stepping down gracefully for senior executives

(1)    Know when to go – before you get pushed and while you are still at the top of your game

(2)    Go gracefully and without resentment – passing the reins on to your successor while times are good to give them the best chance of success

(3)    Have something to move on to – moving on gracefully is about planning ahead and having something to move on to. It may be about giving something back, educating the next generation

(4)    If you are moving, for example, from ceo to chairman, be aware of the change in nature and responsibility that is required. Great advice and example of this by Robert Sutton in Harvard Business Review.

Moving on gracefully is often simply a case of accepting that it is time to move into another stage of your life, and one that can be just as rewarding – if not more so – than the one before. If sportsmen and women can do this gracefully in the prime of their life, then senior execs can too.

When do you think is the right time to go? Would you find it difficult to hand over the reins? Is your ceo getting a little bit “sticky”? How do you deal with this? What other lessons can business leaders learn from sports stars?

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