Tips for Succession Planning in a Family Business


business teamI wrote about the topic of succession planning a few months ago, but I continue to find the topic fascinating. Succession planning in any size business is critical, and when family dynamics enter the picture, the risks are greater. After all, the wrong decision can doom not only the business, but also Thanksgiving dinner.

So how should a family business go about determining the founder’s successor?

The first thing to do is to start early. Unless there is a single perfect candidate with ideal background, it will take a few years to ready someone for the CEO role. It’s important to be objective about who the best candidate is—it might not be the oldest son. It might be a younger daughter. It might be a cousin. It might even be someone outside the family.

While the existing CEO in a family business may make the ultimate decision, he or she should get input from others. That input should come from other leaders in the business, both family members and leaders outside the family. And family members who don’t work at the company but who rely on the business for their livelihoods should also be consulted. Input from key customers and other stakeholders is also important. Given the family dynamics involved, it might be important to use an outside consultant or advisor to gather the input.

Family dynamics will be critical in determining the right candidate. Are there sibling rivalries that will resurface? What education and other experiences do various candidates have? Has one person been given the inside track, which might have left gaps in other candidates’ backgrounds? Should those gaps be filled to give more candidates a decent shot at the leadership role?

It is best not to put all your eggs in one basket. Grooming just one candidate for the CEO position might leave you with no one. That is true in any business, but more likely to be true where the bias is to keep the role in the family, meaning there are fewer candidates to begin with. The expected successor may decide to join a monastery or to go live in the Caribbean. Or the successor might die or become disabled. Have a back-up plan.

org chartBy starting well in advance of the need for a successor, it is possible to develop two or three viable candidates and to rotate them through various roles to give them all an opportunity to build the experience and relationships they will need in the role.

And if one or more potential successors is not developing as expected, it is important to have an honest onversation sooner rather than later. It won’t be an easy conversation, but the family member can save face by exiting the company or opting for a sidelined position on his or her terms and timing. That way, he or she is not obviously passed over when the time for succession arrives.

Here are a few excellent articles on managing succession planning in family-owned businesses:

How to Save the Family Business, a 1994 article by Peter Drucker, reprintedi n the Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2015. 

7 ‘Empire’ Lessons On Family Business Succession, by Andrea King Collier, Forbes, April 27, 2015

Leadership Lessons from Great Family Businesses, Claudio Fernández-AráozSonny IqbalJörg Ritter, Harvard Business Review April 2015

How to improve the chances your family business will succeed in the next generation, by Steve Coleman, The Business Journals, Apr 1, 2015

When have you seen succession planning work well?

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