Best way to create a succession plan is to not create a succession plan

So many businesses, especially family and owner managed businesses, get so caught up with the term succession they do absolutely nothing about it. They may have an awareness but because it’s so daunting and involves emotions, communication and people (including relatives!) they freeze and bury their head in the sand. It’s common to hear stories of families and / businesses trying to look at succession for 10years and still not being any further forwards.

The thought of trying to begin planning is more petrifying than the potential implications of not having any plans in place – because that would be tomorrow’s problem and opening a can of worms is very much a fear for today. Of course there are practical reasons as to why people avoid succession as a topic too. Family and owner managed businesses are busy and short of time and resources so have no physical or metal capacity to start plus they are the wrong people to do it because they are so entrenched.

Imagine that you want to create a better looking bottom line – your profit. Where do you begin? Do you focus on profit? No.

Profit is the result, or “scores on the doors”. You have to be aware of it and how incredibly important of it because it’s a gauge of how you’re doing and what you can take as dividend and reinvest into the business – and even part of your valuation for sale should you wish to. Succession is the same.

Profit is the result achieved by driving revenue and controlling costs. Succession is the result of alignment, communication and what we refer to as GLAS. Most interventions and specialist projects that we run for clients do not focus on succession even though it’s acknowledged as critical. We work on a whole series of areas to create alignment but that focuses on a spectrum of areas that in turn create succession plans. No matter what the brief we will create an environment and process that throws out succession plans – and strangely enough everyone tells us at that point “well that was easy and obvious”. Yes, because we’ve stopped focusing on the “score” and we’re now actively in the game which creates a better “score” as a result.

Getting so caught up in starting to build a succession plan is the biggest barrier to actually creating one so don’t! Trust in a specialist team to align you, your family (and / or management team), your business, your external community and your reason for being – the purpose. That creates a living, breathing succession plan which I would then consider as being the best way to future proof you, your family, your business and your wealth.

Myths of succession

Succession is tomorrow’s problem. 

Putting the subject on the back burner believing we don’t need to worry about it because there are years to plan is dangerous. You risk the unexpected catching you out – in extreme cases the key family and business person being taken seriously ill or passing away. The majority of family enterprises are owner managed and extremely hands on dealing with the day to day challenges of the business. It is vital to always be considering the “what if…” question and scenarios. All business leaders, even as a 30 something founder of a new business, have a responsibility to think about this from day one. It’s vital to take time to work on the business as well as in it.


Succession is about appointing the next leader.

Succession is not about passing the business to one person but considering holistic future planning and protection. It’s vital to consider ownership, business, individual, family and wealth needs and wants. The best succession strategies look at skills, market conditions, opportunities, investment, R & D, evolving society, technology etc as well as the family role and the wishes of those impacted by the business. We would rather have people focus on future proofing and transitioning


Succession = one in and one out

We would also ban the term retirement, it no longer means “pipe, slippers and death”. Transitioning is about a developing strategy to carefully evolve the roles played for new and existing people at all levels of the organisation. Successful processes ensure that there is room for the incumbent generation as well as the future generation – both are as vital. Designing the strategy allows everyone to influence and understand their next phase and it should be gradual and done with support for all and open communication.


Succession is a big deal with a plan

No. Succession is a living breathing process of transferring knowledge, experience, values and much more – not just to a newer generation but also up to the incumbent generation. We should never stop learning and it’s not about creating a one off plan. It’s a process with supporting strategy which should be reviewed and developed on a continual basis. From founding generation to multiple generation, each should be adding value as they pass it on and this should be part of the discussion.


Succession is something I’ll decide on and let other know about when I’m ready

It’s rare that one person deciding on a how the future will be, especially when they won’t be part of it, works well. It is very much an inclusive process that should involve all those that influence and are influenced by the business and future decisions. It’s vital to have buy-in from everyone or at least involve them in the process as this is a huge opportunity to consider ideas you’d not thought of and also to share the burden and responsibility. This approach allows relationships to be strengthened rather than undermined and opportunities to be seized.


Succession is a family only matter 

No. Traditionally family enterprises would keep plans to themselves. Employees aren’t daft, they know that the MD or CEO is 80 and nothing has been done to ensure longevity and the future – and so guess what… they’re looking for new jobs. The best businesses with successful transitioning strategies involve their often loyal employees and certainly keep them informed to reassure them.


Succession is something we will sort ourselves

We work with many families and businesses who have been trying to work on a strategy themselves for up to 10 years without success and spiralled into toxic situations as a result. Some do involve their professional advisers but are trying to fix issues that they don’t really understand and don’t really want to face. When you’re within the process it’s very difficult to overcome the dynamics and emotions and see the complete picture. Even those that believe that they have created a great strategy usually head in the wrong direction because the process was flawed. Using specialised neutral support can save time, money, frustrations and relationships as well as giving piece of mind. Family enterprises very often internalise and are the wrong people to “solve the succession dilemma” themselves. To ensure a successful process, plan and outcome using neutral support is usually the very best way.


Succession strategies are good enough

We always recommend that any future planning and strategic development is supported by suitable protection such as a family charter or constitution and Shareholders Agreement. Creating the rules to play by is simple when everyone is sharing the vision and onboard. When things go awry or take you unawares, that’s when documents and protection can be so useful. Believe me, we see so many examples of this happening even for the closest most loving families.


Succession is just for family businesses

There are many things that family enterprises can teach us and the importance of future proofing your organisation and building a robust transitioning strategy is one. We see professional firms, public companies, schools, public sector organisations and more all struggling with precisely this.

Can’t be clear enough

I was fortunate enough to spend time with a friend and business associate this week as he shared the story of selling his business and how he recently signed the deal and announced to a work force that the deal was done. This wasn’t a family business but I was struck by his journey and absolute clarity from the day he and his 2 partners formed the business.

Day one for them was spent shaping what each of them wanted in the future, so much so that they each created a visual montage of their future life once they’d sold the business – the business that really hadn’t even started yet. From cars to holidays and how time would be spent with family once a deal was completed in the future. Each of them had their picture of the future on the wall by their desk.

They also set out with a spreadsheet to calculate each year what the sale value might be – but only once they had each worked out the minimum figure they’d take if an offer was made. Between the three they had agreed on one figure based on thsi and that became critical 15 years on as they negotiated the sale. They exceeed this figure just a couple of weeks ago as they sold their business to Ernst and Young.

If you can really see something with absolute clarity it makes achieving it much more likely!