COMMENTARY: Like Liverpool, businesses face challenge of managing change while keeping investors and customers happy

The new year got off to an unsettling start for us Liverpool supporters with news of Steve Gerrard leaving Anfield at the end of the season.

Gerrard has been at the club for 25 years, joining as a nine-year-old in 1989 and playing nearly 700 first team games since making his debut in 1998.

Announcing the departure of a player who so readily fitted clichés such as ‘legend’ and ‘larger than life’ seemed bound to be fraught.

Alan Shearer, Jamie Carragher and other pundits were quick to say Liverpool should have done more to keep their captain.

And fans, already frustrated by Liverpool’s erratic form this season, were being given another reason to see manager Brendan Rodgers as having lost the plot.

But the PR was sublime. Try as they might, journalists simply couldn’t find enough of a chink in the wall of magnanimity to open up a good story.

Gerrard even said: “I wish I’d met Brendan when I was 24 because I’d be sitting here talking about a lot more titles we’d won together.”

As a PR consultant, it would be comforting to think this was an example of a perfectly-choreographed and executed narrative.

I suspect, however, it was probably more a product of the natural charm and graciousness of the two men, underpinned by Gerrard’s unfailing loyalty to Liverpool. But then PR needs good material to work with.

For Rodgers, managing Gerrard’s departure – which had to come sooner or later – was always going to be one of the biggest tests of his succession strategy.

He inherited an aging, underperforming squad and had to set about the task of managing the change to a new one while delivering enough on the pitch to buy time with fickle fans and investors.

Liverpool supporters are fond of invoking the memory of Bill Shankly when criticising current shortcomings.

But the man who managed Liverpool to three league titles isn’t a great role model when it comes to succession - Shankly prevaricated when it was time to phase out the stars of his first successful team. 

“If I have one criticism of Bill,” his successor Bob Paisley once said, “it was that he didn’t break up the great team of the 60’s earlier. He was content with what he’d done and kept faith with the players. He was a very loyal man, but I was keener to get back to winning things again.”

Where precisely the balance lies between loyalty and the pursuit of success is, however, tricky in itself. Loyalty to trusted staff, in any business, is usually reciprocated, and experience can be as valuable as the enthusiasm of fresh talent.

It grieves me to say it, but Sir Alex Ferguson was adept at making the most of the guile of veterans such as Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.

I suspect Rodgers’s Plan A was to try to keep Gerrard for a few more seasons as a father figure in the squad but that did not perhaps fit the Captain Marvel character of the man he was negotiating with. 

It is arguable Rodgers made his move a season too early but timing is always one of the trickiest elements of a succession strategy in any organisation.

And the Liverpool manager should count himself lucky he isn’t managing his own succession. In owner-managed businesses, the lead has to come from the person or people being succeeded.

It’s a proverbial turkeys and Christmas situation, but it has to be faced. The laws of nature are such that owner-managers need to think about giving way to younger people before they become an impediment to their business’s development.

They need to attune themselves to the warning signals, such as hearing themselves say ‘we tried that before’ or ‘when you’ve been doing this as long as I have’.

Over the last few years, Freshwater has been through a period of change that has seen the baton pass from a management team mainly in its fifties to one with an average age about 20 years younger.

It’s slightly embarrassing this has coincided with renewed growth, but I comfort myself with the thought that me and my older colleagues are akin to Scholes and Giggs – or should I say (and this is one for Liverpool diehards) Ian Callaghan.

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Steve Howell is chief executive of Freshwater UK, the Cardiff-headquartered communications consultancy, and author of Over The Line, a new novel published by Quaero – orders via www.steve-howell.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FromSteveHowell

 
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Impact Report 2017

Impact report 2017