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Uncover Succession Stumbling Blocks

The succession planning process calls for the same passion and focus as the business and will have just as many challenges. It requires time, resources and scheduling—just as running the business does.

Succession continues to be a problem in Family Business. There are several difficulties even once you find someone who is truly interested and actually has the skills, or can learn the skills, it would take to work in the business. There’s also the shift from the charismatic leadership model to the more humble and enabling servant leader model with more emphasis than ever on interpersonal skills, and what may be the central issue–starting early enough (common opinion these days is 10 years).

Letting go is hard to do
The process of letting go when you hold the reins is usually not easy. The tendency is to leave it too late. If your work has been the main source of satisfaction, how are can you look forward to leaving? What transition process will be adequate?

It’s best to involve stakeholders (customers and suppliers) in the process that plans succession, not just the lawyers, accountants, and wealth management folks, as essential as they are.

Our CEO (who is now going to leave) is somehow supposed to be graceful, and understand that the time is approaching when he or she won’t be there. In worst case scenarios, no one works on succession until the CEO has already left. That can occur when illness forces the decision, or worse, when there is an unexpected death – something none of us plan for.

This successful creative person now is to move from the role of founder, or if second generation or later at least from a role where he or she has been presumed to have created value, and expected to participate in their own departure and do it wisely, gracefully and skillfully – well it’s usually not the case! As he/she moves from hero to golfer, from founder to retiree, much is required for our CEO to be happy.

The succession process requires structure
The succession process relies on appropriate structures for the planning process, and on the involvement of all those affected. It needs to be orchestrated in ways that maintain the health of the business, the harmony of the family, and the preservation and safeguarding of the owners earned shareholders capital. This planning process becomes a context in itself; within it are many planning goals, with roles for all stakeholders to play in maintaining the balance and integrity needed to move the business, the family, and wealth preservation forward in unison.

Succession is quite the task, yet because of the stakes and the complexity involved in achieving a successful outcome, a critical one that requires time, resources and scheduling, just as running the business does. The succession planning process calls for the same passion and focus as the business and will have just as many challenges. People issues will all be front and center and require skillful guidance to navigate the turbulence involved in real change. All this new activity needs to happen with already scare time and financial resources.

Don’t leave succession planning to the last minute
It’s good to start early, and have some good help; especially in handling the “soft stuff” of transition. We are creatures that like things to go along well, hopefully without too many interpersonal bumps.
Challenges in business are part of landscape, and although often daunting, when faced squarely they make the difference between potential problems and much satisfaction.

Back in the forties Kurt Lewin developed something called Force Field Analysis that asks what are the “driving forces” and what are the “restraining forces” when working toward the goal? In other words, what are the pluses and minus of what is going on? What is the cost/benefit of what is going on?

People often think that we just need to get more forces to push towards the goal, but there is always enough energy towards the goal. The issue is how do you modify the restraining forces, the negative things? How do you remove the stumbling blocks?

Things that are impediments are when people don’t feel heard or when they don’t want to be too specific about things because if they do, they might get attacked, or when they respond, we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work. As a facilitator you try to help people to not be quite as vague.

If you are part of the group, ask a person to tell you more about that, or “I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean” or “Can you say more about that”. People respond to those kinds of reactions and start to feel like somebody is actually interested.

Investigate differences
If someone in the group just goes back to task and tries to minimize the interpersonal relationships or tries to figure out who they can talk to and only talks to them it creates a triangle which excludes the rest of the family or the group. If there is a confident who he or she agrees with and who there is enough similarity with, they create a sub-system, but it is private. In this situation in the larger group, it seems like have an agreement about something, but the sub-group is being compliant and then out of the room will voice their real thoughts.

Facilitation and Family Councils
There is a move in family business, and I have been trained in this, to develop a family counsel, a group which is set-up to hold family meetings. This can be particularly useful when considering succession. It begins with a meeting for the family to develop a code of conduct for the council.

  • What kind of language you are going to use?
  • Whether people are going to stay in the room and if they leave, how they will leave?

They may also develop a constitution for the family. There are various tools you can help the family develop.

For the facilitator or coach, the issue with a family council is to make sure that you are really noticing the phases of group development in that work. Otherwise people will be compliant to the facilitator and will go along with it because they are trying to be respectful or stay out of trouble; then they go out of the room and there is a blow up. The facilitator needs to be able to handle the intensity of what families can’t handle themselves; without somebody there to support them, these structures and systems and so forth, can get a little tattered. It does not matter if a group has met a thousand times before. You are always going to be dealing with the first stages of group formation for that meeting.

Some of the work is just helping family members to be able to get clearer and clearer about what they want out of the time together and having them be able to express some of the red zone language of what it is that they have been storing up that they never express.

As long as the facilitator can manage to keep them paying attention to their tendency to blame, attack and complain, and help them stay aware of tendencies to upset or to be vague, engage in fight/flight kind of behavior, any family can begin to change, and develop the skills needed to consider succession or other family business issues.

Conflict can be the gateway to change
At the beginning of the work, what looks like a fight is actually a way to distance as group members are still in flight. On the surface it looks like fight, but actually it is an avoidance of connection. The dynamics are that it isn’t safe enough to have a real fight so group members can complain, blame and do all sorts of things, but are not really going to connect.

If you can help the people to also have their turn to talk, it starts to happen that somebody will start to agree with something that somebody else says. People start to drop off the intensity, start to gradually connect with somebody else and then they don’t feel so isolated.

The facilitation work is to be able to go for whatever the length the meeting is, one hour, two hours, half day, a day, a weekend retreat, and for family members to be able to have more hope at the end than when they started.

Helping everyone feel supported
When I am called in, while on the surface it may look like everything is fine, underneath there are usually all sorts of ways the family knows where not to go because it didn’t work and it was very painful. These are the places where you feel like somehow you were not heard, not understood, or worse that somehow you were rejected. Not just for your opinions, but for something that is important to your values, to yourself.

As a facilitator the issue is how to support people in ways that help them get clearer about what kind of outcomes they want. Clearer about what the goal is for getting together. What is it that they really want? And then helping them to see how each individual is getting in the way of that without having people feel like they have done something wrong.

What intrudes are the losses of the past. “You did . . .” “When I tried . . .” “And, then you . . .” “And, you always . . . “

People are afraid it is never going to stop. They think that everything is going to get worse; that it is hopeless. They try to console themselves. “I am an intelligent person even if they don’t see it. You know, I tried hard and because he/she or them… You know I’ve done my best and it is not my fault.”

It is how they’ve learned to be together.

When it comes up in facilitated systems work, you don’t have to work alone. It is not about ganging up on somebody else. If it is a really small group, then the job is for the facilitator to validate their feelings and their upsets without taking sides against the rest of the people.
As the family comes together in a functioning family council, with some of the stumbling blocks to communication removed, they are better able to focus on the discussions needed for a viable succession plan.

Ian Macnaughton Recognized for Outstanding Achievement

Communication Problems -- and Solutions -- in a Nutshell