What to Learn about Succession Plans From Queen Elizabeth and the British Royal Family

Queen Elizabeth II left behind a legion of admirers and mourners when she died September 8 at the age of 96. In what is perhaps the most famous line of succession in the world, her son Charles automatically became king upon her death. However, there was still a clear and detailed succession plan in place for King Charles III, the royal family and various state and government entities that included arrangements and instructions in the immediate aftermath of the monarch’s passing. 

While your business might not need a succession strategy as intricate as that for the House of Windsor, there are lessons to be learned from Queen Elizabeth and the British royal family on preparing for succession and establishing continuity in the absence of a longtime leader.

Determine your objective 

Operation London Bridge, the name of the Queen’s official funeral plan, outlined the protocol to be observed following her passing. This included instructions and details regarding the official announcement, the mourning period, various observances, the state funeral and more—most of which has been and will be broadcast on live television. 

A company’s succession plan must determine its own immediate objectives as well. It might call for an interim appointment, a replacement search or a request to backfill talent from other leadership roles. It might also be necessary to create a similar plan for emergency situations, such as when JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon had emergency heart surgery in 2020. In that case, co-presidents and COOs Daniel Pinto and Gordon Smith ran the company for a few weeks as he recovered, continuing business operations without interruption.

Conduct a SWOT analysis

The line of succession in the royal family is absolute and regulated by descent and Parliamentary statute. Most companies do not have a succession plan etched in constitutional stone like this. Instead, the question of who is next in line must be determined. 

It can be a difficult choice, but one way to identify potential candidates is by analyzing the company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. What reputation or perception does the company have now? What elements do you want to continue, and where are there opportunities to improve? Completing a SWOT analysis will help clarify who is most capable of leading the company to these goals. Unlike a monarchy, a company has the option to choose its leader based on merit, whether or not that person is part of the family business, an existing employee or an external candidate. 

Lead with logic

Perhaps the most important succession lesson from Queen Elizabeth and the royal family is that difficult decisions should be made ahead of time. That means participating in potentially uncomfortable conversations for the sake of future stability. How often must the Queen have had to ponder her own funeral and the end of her reign? It might have been difficult, but when a plan is determined in advance, it allows those involved to act with logic and to trust the steps ahead, rather than having to operate or make decisions in an emotional state. Although the royal family is grieving, they can follow the guidance set forth knowing that it was created specifically for this point in history. Likewise, a company must also confront its leaders to participate in discussions that will inform future plans.

Decisions to make in advance might include when to notify internal employees, external stakeholders and the media. Posting a physical placard on the gates of Buckingham Palace won’t apply, of course, but it’s just as important to prepare official statements, press releases and communication plans detailing how the news will be delivered and the sequence of events that will follow. 

It’s also important to remember that a succession plan is not a “set it and forget it” type of document. It must be regularly reviewed and updated based on business goals, timelines, employees and various scenarios. For example, because Queen Elizabeth passed away at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, procession routes were specific to that location, something that would have been different (but was still planned for) had she died at Windsor Castle, outside of London. 

Step away

Death isn’t the only situation in which a succession plan might be enacted. Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, also known as the Duke of Edinburgh, stepped away from public duties in 2017 after more than 22,000 solo engagements; he passed away in 2021, more than three years later.

For those in leadership positions, there are various times at which a leader chooses to step down and for a successor be named. Whatever the case, if a leader plans to step away from primary or day-to-day responsibilities, it is also worth considering if there are other roles they would like to continue or take on moving forward. It could be that they want to be completely hands-off. But as part of an initial exit plan, it is important to know for sure if they still want some role—for example, as a board member or trusted consultant.

Communicate with stakeholders

While the public isn’t privy to the exact details of Operation London Bridge, King Charles had certainly been preparing to ascend the throne for most of his life. Successors, no matter who they are, should be aligned on next steps and future responsibilities.

Part of that process means identifying key stakeholders. Who needs to be involved in succession planning, which might include recruiting and vetting talent, setting time tables or communicating with the press? Is it a single leader, the entire C-suite, a board of directors, shareholders, the communications office or something else? Financial and legal status of the company as well as a company missive might also be factors in determining that list of stakeholders.

Once a successor has been chosen, the plan should allow for current and future leaders to address any gaps in knowledge. If it’s possible, this critical step would involve mentorship, relationship-building and strategic preparation all aimed at creating a smooth transition.

Ultimately, a succession plan should protect your company and assure that crises will be mitigated to the best of your ability. Even more, it should ensure that whether you’ve been on the throne—or CEO—for seven years or 73, your work will live on. What better legacy to leave than that?

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Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.

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