The Secret Marketer on career management

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There is an old mantra in career management speak that says you should always look to follow an idiot when choosing your next role.

Sadly for new Tesco chief executive officer Philip Clarke, replacing Sir Terry Leahy was never going to be an easy gig. As the days go by, Sir Terry looks even smarter than we might have thought him to be and he can now add a great sense of timing to his already spotless resumé.

Succession planning for most middle-ranking roles is a relatively routine task for HR, but replacing the people at the top of successful high-profile businesses is often far more testing. It is the judgement, drive and intuition of these leaders rather than their out-and-out technical capability that is hardest to replace.

“I had to weigh up whether this job was the best role in town or a poisoned chalice. My verdict was the latter”

The challenge is perhaps even tougher when trying to replace those who have fostered entrepreneurial brands, whose name is written all over the success of a particular venture. Despite the undoubted allure of their brands, would you want to be the person replacing Julian Metcalfe at Pret A Manger or one of the trio Jon Wright, Adam Balon and Richard Reed who built Innocent Smoothies? Are these red-hot career challenges or are you on a hiding to nothing?

I had that very dilemma myself before Christmas when I was approached by a headhunter for this type of role. It happened to be on a brand that I have the ultimate respect for and I couldn’t help but be excited by the fact I was on their list.

The brief was to manage the next chapter of growth as the original management team exits stage right. I had to weigh up whether this was the best role in town or a poisoned chalice. My verdict was the latter. Some will accuse me of having a defeatist attitude; others might praise my streetwise career management. But, for myself, the bottom line is that I’m deeply disappointed in my own cautious behaviour.

I had craved a role like this for years – to work on a brand that I deeply respect with the opportunity of a higher public profile than any role I’ve previously had. I am, after all, the man who was promised industry fame by the Marketing Week editor, only to be told my column must be a secret.

I fear I am destined to remain anonymous. Either that or I need to start looking out for an idiot to follow.

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