Turn Me Loose

Most successors I meet are more than ready to go. Generally, they are even somewhat frustrated by the hesitation of the Founder to get out of the way and find it hard to understand why more trust has not been transferred to them in leadership. Even this past month, I met with a successor who was mystified by why the previous generational leadership was not moving more quickly to adopt his ideas and moving ahead to put him in key areas of responsibility. In fact, this young leader was wondering if he had made the right choice in coming to the family business, and was considering going elsewhere.

In some cases, the real issue stopping a successor from moving up is a lack of preparation of the Founder. The current owner of the company is not themselves ready to move on, or certain of how to do that well, so they slow things down and force the successor to wait. However, in other cases, there are real questions surrounding the successor’s readiness to move into key leadership roles.  Founders are understandably careful not to pass off leadership too quickly – to be fair, they don’t want to set the successor up for failure, and want to be fairly certain that the successor can indeed “succeed.”

How can successors be prepared? One way is to recognize that a prepared successor will not usually look like the Founder or current leaders. They are different people and will face different challenges in the coming years than the business faced in previous years as the firm grows, markets and technology changes, and cultural and economic landscapes shift. The new leader should look different than the last one.

Still, there are fundamentals which need to be in place. The successor should have been placed in a role (if not in the family business, then in another business) where they have held significant decision-making authority and accountability for results.  Good results must have been demonstrated in a way that leaves little doubt that they are capable of making good decisions. The successor should also have shown a consistent ability to work well within a team. No leader makes it on their own, and no leader is as smart as a team. Being able to “play well with others” is more than a sandbox skill – it is essential to good leadership and good successorship.

Another area of development for good next generation leaders is communication. It sounds trite, but great communication skills are table stakes for great leadership. This is more than just being able to give good and clear direction. The leader’s “radio” needs to be able to “receive” as well as “transmit.” Listening skills are critical, especially in the current North American generational context. A command and control style of leadership may still work in some contexts, but most businesses today require leaders to be able to listen well to their teams, their customers, and then to synergize that input in decision-making.

If these types of skills (there are more of course) are demonstrated consistently and effectively, most Founders can relax and allow their successors to move into leadership, and make decisions to move the business ahead safely.