Comment: The problem with the Royal family: A 93-year-old CEO

The news that Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, are to ‘step back’ from their senior roles in the royal family, split their time between the UK and Canada, and seek to become ‘financially independent’ is a reflection of the creaking management structure of one of the oldest ‘firms’ in the world.

Often referred to as ‘the firm’, this is a company where the CEO is 93, and the designated successor a sprightly 71. There is no board. The company structure dates back to 1066, with some adjustments in 1215, 1660, 1707, and on and off since then. However, fundamentally, things haven’t changed for a few hundred years.

Resilient though the royal family have been over the centuries, they’ve had their ups and downs and some real lows around the time of the tragic death of Princess Diana and the fire at Windsor Castle. Since then they’ve apparently recovered well including a splendid Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and two magical royal weddings, until just recently when it looks like a lack of strategic planning has really let them down. A more cynical view is that the post-Diana era during which the boys have grown up has masked a total failure to modernise the ‘firm’.

In the twenty-first century, for a company to allow senior team members to be bullied, to fail to support them properly in this, to provide a lack of clarity on their roles and not to provide a clear career path, you’d reckon that company was pretty badly run. Share value might drop, heads could roll, the board would be under scrutiny and shareholders would rattle their sabres. This firm of course is different and operates extremely opaquely.

They’ve been here before after all, the analogy with Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII is not unhelpful and this firm should have factored that into their scenario planning. Although it would seem that Harry and Meghan didn’t provide very long for ‘management’ to consider how to address their most recent stated complaints none of this would be a surprise to a high performing management team, especially recognising they are dealing with millennials, and an early warning was raised on their Africa trip.

Some core departments of this firm should be under particular scrutiny. First up, you’d fire the PR department. I’ve worked with a lot of great PR specialists over the years and they’ll all tell you some of their best work is what they’ve stopped the media publishing; I myself have had to make some of those calls to persuade editors that certain things needn’t be publicised. You never see it, but it’s there and it’s important. Contrast this to the Royals’ PR department; either they must stop the most bizarre stories, or they really are a total fail on many counts and can only handle good news. You’d think, in the aftermath of the tragic death of Princess Diana, that the relationship would have been permanently reset between the royal family and the media, not just whilst William and Harry were growing up. In fact, it’s even worse now due to the bellicose nature of social media amplifying every half-truth.

We’ve seen Meghan attacked persistently for whatever she does or doesn’t do, with an apparent high degree of hypocrisy and inconsistency in how media treat Kate compared to Meghan. Some might say the difference being that Meghan is black, and American. Does that allow for open season? It shouldn’t, it’s wrong, but when you study the minutiae of what the British tabloids, world media and women’s magazines pick up, something’s going on.

If this firm was functioning properly, they’d have hired a real heavy hitter media person to take this on. After all, Facebook hired Nick Clegg, the former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK. The media is the royal family’s single biggest problem.

And the HR team probably need to go too – Harry and Meghan sent a cry for help from Africa. A good HR manager, in fact any manager, would spot the problem and get on to it pronto. They’d have been raising red flags, fast-tracking a ‘career pathway’ for Harry and Meghan, listening to their aspirations, plotting a pathway congruent and complementary with others in ‘management’. And doing whatever they could to stop happening what has just happened.

At the end of the day, this is a young couple in love and they have not been let alone to enjoy that. The ‘firm’ has let Harry and Meghan down badly. Little wonder they have quit, walked out, and in the case of Meghan, already left the country. For them, an exciting world beckons unfettered by the sluggish, stuffy process of the old firm; they can perhaps forge an exciting new brand of royalness, and in so doing, have the positive impact on the world that they clearly are ambitious to achieve.


– Ben Goodale is CEO of strategic marketing agency, Quantum Jump.

This comment piece originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald, 11 January 2020.