There is a significant difference between honouring the past and being anchored to it. Leaving a legacy and letting go aren’t incongruent. The measure of grace and confidence employed by a retiring founder or generational leader as he or she prepares to step back will greatly affect their legacy.
The transition from master to mentor is not easy. Leaders who have led well have likely learned to trust the people in their charge, but they haven’t necessarily had to put their own futures into the hands of their protégés. And yet, this is what succession is all about: Letting go and learning to trust.
One of the most defining steps that a business leader will take is the one the one that takes him out the front door. One of the worst things that an outgoing entrepreneur can do is prolong the exit, attempting to micromanage even from the doorway on the way out. There is a balance, to be certain, but without a strategic plan for ownership and management transition, levels of discontentment, angst and general unrest will rise.
It takes courage to define ideal succession targets and formalize an exit plan that includes clearly reduced roles & responsibilities and exit dates. A commitment to transition and open and honest dialogue are a great gift to the incoming generation of leaders, but an ambiguous, blurry plan (or lack thereof) is a burden that can threaten the very existence of the business itself.
It takes bravery to exit with grace. It takes wisdom combined with humility to step out of the limelight and into a more supportive, advisory role. It’s a beautiful show of unity and faith when families’ discover the power of trust amidst transition.
Family businesses tend to herd sacred cattle. The term “sacred cow” is defined as “someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question.”
Entire fortunes have been lost as a result of an unwillingness to question the unquestionable.
This itself begs a question.
If, by questioning the unquestionable, the questioner offends all that is held to be above criticism, is the cow really the problem? Or is it the person or persons who have decided to make certain issues or “truths” off limits? To maintain the analogy, perhaps when challenging the status quo we should be concerned less of the cow and more about the “priest” who calls it sacred.
Who decides which issues are acceptable for discussion and which are to be left off the agenda? I’d say pay more attention to this than the issues themselves. It is the people, not the issues, who make or break family businesses.
Working with families, usually in the midst of trying situations emotionally or financially, I’ve always been amused at the statement: “We don’t do it that way around here.”
My response is usually something like, “and how is that working out for you?”
It’s somewhat ironic that a member of the family and the business can realize things aren’t working out and yet instinctually be drawn to perpetuating the problems due to an intrinsic adversity to change.
Family business leaders must be keenly aware of people who profess an openness to the examination the way things are done and yet hold back information or maintain that certain “sacred” or traditional methods must not be changed.
Change, of course, is always occurring; it’s the acceptance of change that is the challenge, and the challenging of the status quo that brings about change.
Leading a family enterprise is a painfully complex, yet ultimately rewarding endeavour. I was involved in a conversation this past week with a group a future family business leaders and was asked a question I’ve asked myself time and time again:
When do you finally just throw in the towel, and give up on this whole changing the culture thing?
The conversation continued to circle around leadership, culture change and the frustrating feeling that throughout the ongoing process of succession progress is slow and tedious.
I’ve learned, as a third-generation family business leader involved in a leadership and ownership succession process between the elder generation and my own for nearly seven years now, that you really don’t know how far you’ve come until you take a moment to look back.
There were times when I felt like I was running through mud, working and straining against the status quo and believing that nothing was changing; and it was only once I took the time to reflect and remember the way things were, even a year or so prior, that I could fully grasp the organizational change and progress we’d made as a family enterprise.
I believe that visionary leadership is the culmination of audacious imagination and persevering dedication; it is the ability to provoke opportunity with enough courage and tenacity to reach the destination of one’s dreams. What I mean by this is that there is a combination of dreaming and doing that must occur for vision to become reality, and sometimes it takes heroic yet patient determination to see a succession plan through to completion.
Not that succession really ends…but that’s another topic for another day.