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While HBO blockbuster Succession evoked a Murdoch effigy of politics and backstabbing, real life succession may be no less dramatic. The “hero based” culture of modern organisations has led the rise of the personality CEO – larger than life figures who command vast social media followings, presidents on speed dial and pronounce on everything from social justice to nuclear war.

These cult figures don’t waste time on surnames…Elon, Steve, Jeff, Jamie. They become the very embodiment of their companies.  Values and valuations are inextricably linked to them.  Fortunes are made or fail on their names.

Eventually, though, they move on.  Retirement, health, politics – all can portent the demise of a famed and feted leader.  In turn, this challenges organisations – how do you replace someone who is fundamental to the value of your company?

Dimon a dozen?

The latest company to face this challenge is JP Morgan.  Jamie Dimon, its unchallenged leader, doyen of Wall Street and poster boy for compassionate capitalism, is 68.  He’s already announced his succession (in January), though not his successor.  He’s given markets three and a half years to get ready.  Then again, he’s hinted he may go on longer.

Such is his star, that JP Morgan’s proxy filing for its results focussed heavily on succession.  Bench strength was highlighted. Names thrown into the mix. 

This wasn’t the first time.  Back in January, the company announced a major restructure to prepare for the future.

Trouble is, Jamie didn’t get the memo.  Or if he did, he didn’t have time to read it. His annual letter was a celebration of all things…well, Jamie.

It’s become fashionable for top tier CEOs to turn their annual musings to state of the nation style speeches that wouldn’t be out of place in a Presidential campaign. Maybe that’s the point.  Some commentators have already anointed Jamie as a future White House candidate.

Larry Fink, long-time leader of the world’s largest investment company BlackRock, has a letter too. It’s scrutinised each year for hidden signals with almost illuminati style zeal (this year he omitted ESG, confirming the much-suspected existential crisis for the sector).

In Jamie’s case, the great omission was succession. Only one potential candidate got namechecked in a 65 page letter (Daniel Pinto, lest you were wondering).   Otherwise there was nothing but Jamie D musings and general goodness.

Even the timeline infographic started in 2000 with Jamie becoming leader of One Bank.  There was no heritage space for JP Morgan’s 1871 inauguration, or Chase’s 1999 founding.  This was pure, unadulterated Dimonism.

There was musing on the secret sauce of leadership, AI, a world at war, the OODA loop, and even a rallying call for DEI that must have heartened Democrats. 

But noticeably, there was nothing about the pachyderm in the palace; how to replace a man who has bestridden the company as a colossus of banking.

Preparing the next generation

I understand it would take a brave advisor to tell Jamie to share his podium; it has been gained after years of performance and leadership.  He’s earned the right to his letter.

But legacies are most shaped by those who follow.  Tony Blair celebrated David Cameron’s centrist shift as one of his finest achievements.

There are undoubtedly JP Morgan acolytes hewn in Jamie’s image.  The challenge for any leader will be to move from his shadow.  Sometimes this can take decades.  Manchester United still labour under the looming figure of Alex Fergusson.  His anointed successor, David Moyes, barely lasted a season.  A litany of high-profile figures followed and failed.

I can understand the reticence to announce a successor.  Why spoil the party while it’s in full swing. JP Morgan is the undoubted winner from the financial crisis. An investor at their AGM in 2023 literally begged Dimon to stay on.  

Meet the new boss

The risk, as always, is that the bank will look for Dimon 2.0.  A charismatic doppelganger to laud and perpetuate success.  That risks utter failure.  Dimon can’t be bottled and reproduced, just as all leaders are products of their time and environment.

But at JP Morgan there is a greater opportunity to be grasped. Rather than look for a successor, they must look to succession. There is a chance to break the personality cult, to produce a cohort of leaders.  A collective that represents modern America and, increasingly, the bank’s global footprint.

From communicators perspective it can be challenging.  The media loves the individual cult -the humanity and emotional connection a feted leader can bring.  But with it, comes risks.  Individual status outranks collective efforts. One man’s star outshines JP Morgan’s 240,000 employees.

Succession provides the opportunity to reposition the bank as the product of its collective workforce, its stakeholders and clients. It allows it to reshape its reputation and better reflect the modern organization it has become.  

Those who worry that Dimon’s retirement portents JP Morgan’s demise should look at Apple. With Steve Jobs untimely death, naysayers prophesised the end of Apple.  After all, Apple was Steve Jobs. 

The day before his death, Apple stock closed at $11.26.  Yesterday it was over $175.

That, of course, is the nature of corporations.  They persist beyond the spans of their individual leaders.  Some European banks are more than 500 years old.  

While succession may challenge the best prepared corporate communicators, they rarely deliver the doomsday scenario some predict. Instead, they mark an opportunity to reset and renew.

Charles Ansdell is a senior consulant and the Chief Operating Officer of Cognito