Women and Succession: What Happens When You Succeed a Legend?

Karl Lagerfeld is dead. Jony Ive is leaving Apple.

Both men - legends in their respective industries - are succeeded by women.

Talk about a tough gig.

It’s not bad enough that when women move up the ranks of an organization we’re seen as “aggressive,” “bitchy” and “grabby.”

It gets worse when a woman gets the top job - no matter how talented and accomplished she is. Or even when she’s hand-picked by the guy who’s going or gone…no matter what the reason.

Because as soon as the woman’s ascension is announced the immediate assumption is that she can’t do it - and everyone starts looking for the reasons why. Any reasons why.

What got me thinking about this (this time) was an article I read in Fashion Network about the first Chanel haute couture runway show designed by Lagerfeld’s chosen successor, Virginie Viard.

It all starts with the article’s title and headline:

Chanel’s New Sexy Librarian Chic

There’s a new gal at Chanel, both in the design department and on the runway. A brainy type, who even wears reading glasses on a catwalk and eschews anything too frivolous.

You see where I’m going with this.

We’ll get to the “sexy librarian chic” in a moment - but even before that, a “new gal?” Really? And is there something wrong with being brainy? Or wearing glasses?

And why does any of that mean that that “gal” eschews anything - let alone anything “too frivolous?”

In looking at Viard’s designs, I don’t see “sexy librarian chic.” What I see is an elegant, empowered, self-assured, self-realized woman - both in daywear and evening gowns. Is she sexy? Yes. But what’s important is that women are far more - and Viard sees, enhances and celebrates that.

Sure, it would be easy to say since the article is written by a man that he just doesn’t get it. (It’s that ‘sexy librarian fantasy’ that goes with the ‘buttoned up’ woman letting down her hair and pulling off her glasses that gives it away.)

However, if you look at the same writer’s review of the Armani Privé haute couture show designed by Giorgio Armani - with many of the same design sensibilities…and lots more nipples - you read about gasps of appreciation and standing ovations.

Where Viard is given a tepid, condescending review, Armani is touted as a genius.

Like I said, tough gig.

It doesn’t matter that Viard worked with Lagerfeld for years and that he chose her as his successor - with the necessary approval of the House of Chanel’s owners. The focus of the review was more about whether Viard would really be able to step into Lagerfeld’s shoes for the long-run. Like the genius he was. But, evidently, she can’t be.

Because she’s a she.

All of which takes us to Apple, Jony Ive and Evans Hankey.

In the world of tech industry shock and awe, Jony Ive announced his resignation from Apple at the end of this year.

If you don’t know who Jony Ive is, he’s the industrial designer rightfully credited with working in close partnership with Steve Jobs in turning around Apple from the moment Jobs came back into the company.

From the reporting, you would think that it was as good as a death sentence for Apple. It was even bad enough that Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO and a model of executive restraint, felt compelled to write to the Wall Street Journal about how wrong their reporting was.

Good for Cook.

But, we were talking about Evans Hankey. Wait. Who?

Evans Hankey, a multi-patent owning, long-time Apple employee and close colleague of Ive has been selected with her colleague Alan Dye - and approved by Tim Cook - to run the design function at Apple once Ive has left.

She’s getting the same treatment as Viard.

Different industry. Same problem.

There’s little to no talk about Alan Dye - other than giving Apple credit for not choosing a single successor to Ive. What gets questioned is whether Hankey will be able to step into Ive’s shoes. Whether the company will be able to continue its design leadership. How it’s the end of an era. The end of Jobs at Apple. The end.

What a bunch of hooey.

You don’t become an Evans Hankey by sitting on the sidelines. You don’t win all those patents or build the kind of reputation that puts you into a position to lead the design function in a global design-leading company by being a no-show or an incompetent.

And, yes, by the way, most of the articles about Hankey are written by men, too.

This isn’t new. None of it. And, as we all know, it’s not limited to business.

There is, quite simply, a societal, institutional sexism that comes into play as soon as a woman takes on a leadership position. Any leadership position.

What’s important for both women and men is to know, recognize and accept that the sexism is there - and then make your decisions while actively ignoring it.

By doing so, you create a win for your company, your culture and your society that goes far beyond the decision itself.

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