Arsene Wenger’s decision to stand down from his role as manager of Arsenal follows a tenure of more than two decades – far longer than the majority of football coaches could ever hope to serve at any club, no matter how steely or dedicated.

In a moving statement announcing his intention to leave the club at the end of the current season, Wenger said: “I am grateful for having had the privilege to serve the club for so many memorable years … I urge our fans to stand behind the team to finish on a high. To all the Arsenal lovers, take care of the values of the club. My love and support forever.”

While Wenger has not, of late, been able to repeat the success that characterised the early part of his Arsenal career, the sheer length of his spell at Highbury and, latterly, Emirates pretty much guarantees him a cachet as legend that will last well into the future. Which leaves his successor with a problem: how to fill those shoes?

As we have already seen in football management with David Moyes taking over from the colossus that was Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, these scenarios can go badly awry. Even though Fergie essentially groomed and mentored Moyes to replace him, Moyes had a torrid time at Man U – striking a duff note almost from the off by tossing out the club’s tried-and-trusted coaching infrastructure and bringing in his own people.

Conversely, some replacements are able to successfully assert their own identity. If we look at other industries, Tim Cook was dismissed as “no Steve Jobs” when he took the reins at Apple. While that may be true, in that Jobs was a unique visionary, Cook is in situ seven years later and seen more and more as the face of the firm.

Should people in the nerve-wracking position of taking over from a big hitter acknowledge the lingering traces of their predecessor, or set their own tone?

The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Stepping into someone’s shoes is undoubtedly a difficult task for leaders – and the bigger the shoes, the greater the challenge becomes. You are never going to be that exact, same person. You are never going to fully replicate their behaviours or the qualities that made your predecessor so unique. And if you try to do so, then you are going to fail.

She explains: “a large part of the success that anyone who does a great job achieves is comprised of the relationships that the individual has built over the years, and the level of trust that underpins them. Some of that will be passed on. There will be a legacy. But at the same time, there will be a lot of relationship building for the new leader to do. The key is to reinvent the role, which can be done only by making it your own – and yet there is a fine line to tread between that and established precedent.”

Cooper advises: “Work hard on building new relationships and sustaining older ones – and be transparent about what you’re trying to do that hasn’t been done before. Share the challenges of the position, and acknowledge that you are not, for example, Arsene Wenger, or Sir Alex Ferguson, or whoever has served before you. Convey to your team that you are trying to do every bit as good a job as your predecessor did – but that you have to do it using your particular strengths, and within the context of the broader industry circumstances in which you are working.”

To sum up, Cooper adds: “recognise that you have to respect what’s come before. Understand that a great deal of your organisation’s brand equity resides within your predecessor’s work, so it would be unwise to indiscriminately cast that work aside. Harness and maintain loyalties and partnerships that are already in place, while adjusting the organisation for the current climate and future challenges. And bring your own vision and imagination to the role so you can reinvent the organisation’s success on your own terms.

“It’s all about keeping up an ongoing conversation, acknowledging that the journey is challenging – and of course, listening. Respect the infrastructure of the people that are around you, who are so vital to the success that the organisation has already enjoyed.”

 

For further insights on teamworking, check out these learning resources from the Institute

 

Image of Arsene Wenger courtesy of Belish, via Shutterstock