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  • Dan Albert S. de Padua

Succession Planning and The Game of Thrones

Change is here.

The boss is gone or on his way out. Someone has to take over, but who should it be? If you are not familiar with the acclaimed HBO series Game of Thrones, it is time to set aside your pirated copies of Downton Abbey and binge on something less civilized. GOT is full of sex and murder and magic, just like real life, and its six seasons have swirled around the question: Who will ultimately sit on the Iron Throne? In our own corporate games of succession, all we need to do is look around at the possible candidates and let GOT be our guide.

The first contestant for ultimate kingship is Tommen Baratheon, ostensibly a direct descendant of the deceased king but privately whispered to be the bastard spawn of incest committed by the queen. We know him in our companies as the obvious heir. He is already the OIC. But if he was really going to hold on to the top job, he would have consolidated his power by now. The fact is he’s weak—too easily manipulated by the women around him. He is not long for this world. It has been prophesied.

Back when the king was still alive, there was the Hand of the King Eddard Stark. They grew up together and fought side by side to get to the top. If the king could have chosen his successor, it would have been his buddy Ned Stark. In our own organizations, he is the long-time chief operating officer. He knows the business better than anybody else. His problem is he’s too old. He belongs to the generation that’s on its way out. More important, since he’s so close to the boss, his rivals will seize the first opportunity to eliminate him. Tellingly, Ned Stark was beheaded early in the series.

There are a number of other pretenders to the throne whom we can dispose of quickly. Petyr Baelish a.k.a. Littlefinger – the invisible, underestimated, cunning, immoral, unscrupulous genius. But is someone like this truly president and CEO material? Kingmaker maybe, but not king. Tyrion Lannister – the drunk sex maniac dwarf. A competent administrator who will never get serious consideration as a leader because he’s a drunk sex maniac dwarf. Lancel Lannister – (who?) the cousin of Cersei and follower of the High Sparrow. Backing from a certain religious group might help one land a job in the Philippine government, but it has very little value in the private sector. Robb Stark – a strong rebel leader from the North and the people’s favorite. How many times have we seen great careers ruined by an inability to keep dick in pants? Sadly, too many.

Now we come to the claimants who have a real chance.

Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, heroic defender of Castle Black, lover of the wildling Ygritte. He’s the guy who says he doesn’t want the job, but he’s the one we all want as the servant-leader of our businesses. It actually helps that he has forsworn corporate politics, putting others before himself. His humility raises him above the grasping, intrigue-spewing executives who fancy themselves as successors to the boss. When called to step up, he acquits himself exceedingly well. He’s a natural outside-the-box thinker and he has the courage of his convictions. Unfortunately, he is not with the company at the moment because he either resigned or retired or is on extended sabbatical; but he’s not completely out of the picture. (In GOT, Jon Snow has just been brought back from the dead.)

Daenerys Targaryen, The Unburnt; Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and of the First Men; Queen of Meereen; Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea; Breaker of Chains; and Mother of Dragons. Commanding fire-breathing flying dragons over a landscape of swords and arrows is like having having a mastery of the digital in an analog world. In order for our companies to survive into the 2020’s, we need a leader like Dany with the ability to change the game. More than a business plan, she has a vision. She can build alliances with strangers. She is comfortable both in the boardroom and the cafeteria. She inspires not just loyalty but devotion. If she has a weakness, it’s that she already has too many titles. Who can live up to those kinds of expectations?

Finally, the big surprise, The Night’s King, an undead White Walker. This may seem unthinkable—strictly speaking, succession planning deals with identifying and developing leaders within the organization—but if someone is recruited from the competition, it wouldn’t be the first time it happened, especially if the competition is winning. Clearly there are risks. He comes from a different upbringing, a different corporate culture, almost a different species; but this is precisely one of the reasons to get him. He comes from the culture we need to learn about and defeat. It will be a shock to the system, certainly, but maybe a shock is what is needed to make people stop playing games and get back to business.

What does our company need most badly: unifying leadership, visionary technology or cultural change?

But we don’t mean to imply here that, rather than spend on fancy MBA’s and HR consultants, all we need to do is watch television. If there is one thing, in fact, that GOT teaches us, it is that life, like good TV, is unpredictable.


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