One of the common challenges most businesses experience is planning for leadership transition. When this is complicated by an accompanied ownership transition, the issues can become even more intertwined. Most leaders know when they need to begin preparing for transition (spoiler alert – it is usually sooner than you think!), but the complexities of “changing the guard” can deter them from moving ahead in a clear way. This is especially true when there are also lots of issues in the day-to-day.
A great way to begin to move down this road is to work on goal alignment between the leader(s), the organization and would-be successor. Earlier this week I had the leadership team from a client in our boardroom and we spent time talking about how they saw the future and their goals for that future. By the end of the day, we knew where the alignments were, and where the (still) lack of alignment was. This allowed them to begin to build a plan to work towards aligning their thinking on the issues that needed it, and also to understand that there was actually a great deal on which they already agreed!
Beginning with personal goals for each of the leaders – current and future – helps by getting on the table the aspirations and needs of each person, and developing a sense of how close the paths are. This can include a sense of where the company needs to go (growth, strategy, organizational development) and the timing for that path. When the individual, personal plans are added (desired role, work-life balance, financial position, and so on), the feasibility of the various components of the plan start to become more visible. If there are places where the plans of the leaders do not align, this creates a great start to knowing what needs to be resolved. Often, there is more in common than most people think.
Talking about the path forward also provides a sense of timeline, and steps needed to prepare for the desired future. If the successors are not sufficiently prepared (at least in the mind of current leadership) then determining a way forward and the timing of that path provides clarity on what needs to happen next, and helps everyone have reasonable expectations on what that needs to look like and when progress is anticipated. The conversation also helps uncover places where there is no reasonable prospect of closing the gap in understandings. While this can be challenging, it is vital to know this sooner rather than later, since the organization and leader’s lives are all impacted by these realities. “Kicking the can down the road” to avoid conflict does no one any favors, but instead tends to create more conflict through ambiguity. In the worst case, an unwelcome surprise can show up through unexpected announcements, changes in health status, or even death – with the organization inadequately prepared, and leaders passed over for roles they thought they were being considered for.
Starting early, working honestly through the goal alignment discussion, and setting plans based on those goals helps everyone – and the company – chart a course for the most successful future for all.