Break in case of emergency. Illustration: Ashley Seibels
Whether you’re the head of a company or the figurehead and soul of an entire nation, the most important thing you can do for your organization’s future is secure your successor.
Using extensive interviews with mostly anonymous palace staffers, officials, historians, and journalists, The Guardian published a fascinating deep dive into what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies.
The royal plan is succession planning taken to the next level. As soon as she dies, civil servants will become James Bond-like 007 agents, passing down the code phrase “London Bridge is down” through secure lines. Within hours of the Queen’s death, both Houses of Parliament will try to meet. The BBC even has a special radio alert transmission system from the Cold War that has also been called “Rats About to Snuff It.”
U.K. radio DJs even have a system. Their big obituary procedures are so elaborate that if “you ever hear Haunted Dancehall (Nursery Remix) by Sabres of Paradise on daytime Radio 1, turn the TV on. Something terrible has just happened.”
From how she could die to where her corgis may walk in the funeral procession (out front, of course), every possible contingent plan has been planned and rehearsed for decades, down to the minute.
This kind of excessive attention to detail may seem silly for some, but as Britain knows well, losing a leader can be a destabilizing force that can leave impacts beyond the physical. The Guardian writes: “there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war.”
The persistence of the British monarchy is important enough that it can even transcend human life: doctors hastened the death of Elizabeth’s father, according to the Guardian, so that the news could meet the print deadlines for newspapers.
Here’s what every company and team can learn from Britain’s royal succession planning.
Prepare early and thoroughly for every possible scenario
For Queen Elizabeth II, royal courtiers have prepared plans for her death, no matter where it may happen. There’s a royal coffin ready to be flown out on a jet in case she dies overseas. If she dies in Balmoral, her Scottish holiday home, elaborate Scottish rituals will take place. It’s all set and double-checked ahead of time.
Similarly, a CEO’s tenure is never secure, but when he or she unexpectedly dies, it can throw a whole company into limbo. SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg suddenly died in 2015 after he collapsed on a treadmill. SurveyMonkey, the online survey platform, did not name his successor, Bill Veghte, until two months later.
Even Lucasfilm, the company behind Star Wars, kept insurance policies on all of its star actors, who are the face and soul of the franchise. As a result, Lloyds of London could end up paying the production company $50 million to compensate for the sudden death of beloved star Carrie Fisher.
And it’s not just death that companies and teams prepare for. Around 49 stock exchanges, including the New York Stock Exchange, use an elaborate facility outside of New York to keep the financial markets running, and the location is far enough from New York to ensure it will keep running in case of a disaster. (The NYSE also has backup infrastructure that it put in place after the 9/11 attacks). Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit, has reportedly had laser surgery to heighten his chances of surviving the end of civilization. Other CEOs have prepared passports for employees if they need to flee the apocalypse, according to reporting from The New Yorker.
Make the transition seamless
Accession is just as important as succession for the U.K. Royal family. When his mother dies, the new King Charles is scheduled to make his first address as head of state that same day. After the funeral, he will then embark on a four-nation tour to greet his subjects. Grief won’t stop the need to do business.
For British royals, the insider candidate has had his whole life to prepare for his succession. But even if your successor hasn’t been predetermined by blood, there are ways to prepare your pool of successors years before they’re needed.
Apple, for example, did test-runs with its successor to Steve Jobs. Tim Cook ran the company in 2004 and 2009 when Jobs was on medical leave.
A Harvard Business Review article says these test-runs are critical, because they let the board figure out what kind of leader the successor could be: “What is this person like under pressure? How does this impact his or her leadership? Does he or she possess the agility and courage required to make difficult choices?”
To make the succession smoother, Jobs and Cook talked openly about what would happen when Jobs died. Jobs recognized that the company would be stronger if the new CEO was not a replica of him. “He didn’t want us asking, ‘What would Steve do?’” Cook said. “He abhorred the way the Disney culture stagnated after Walt Disney’s death, and he was determined for that not to happen at Apple.”
Similarly, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz — a “fitness freak” and vegan — suffered a sudden, catastrophic heart attack only 38 days into the job and had a heart transplant. United moved fast: The company’s general counsel took over for five months as Munoz recovered.
Whether it’s the death of a star team member or the imminent end of civilization, it helps to have a plan — or to be able to make one quickly.