Succession planning is a critical aspect of the survival of any endeavor, and one of the key factors that determine its success is the willingness and readiness to let go and pass on the reins. Often referred to as 'your baby,' whether it's a project, a role, or an entire company, as a founder, you have a deep emotional attachment to it. However, for the transition to occur, you must be both willing and ready. Through coaching, we can help individuals become willing and ready over time.
To truly understand the significance of willingness and readiness, we need to define successful handovers. A successful handover involves the transfer of both ownership and leadership, including the transfer of power and the source role. In other words, I only considered a success when you, as the founder, have emotionally let go of your power and your role as the driving force behind the project. By doing so, you can redirect your energy toward new ventures. Let me share a couple of stories that illustrate the founder's unwillingness to let go.
Founder Unwillingness to Pass on the Business
Ervin, the CEO of a third-generation Belgian insurance company, shared several stories of unsuccessful transitions within his family business. The company was founded by his war veteran grandfather in 1922 when he was just 22 years old. After serving in the military and World War I for five years, he decided to start an art insurance company. Given their proximity to an art community and the demand for asset protection after the war, it was a great opportunity. The business flourished under his leadership, growing from a one-man operation to a profitable enterprise.
When the time came to choose a successor, Ervin secretly told both of his children to carry on with the company, pitting them against each other. However, he was unwilling to pass on his business and wished for it to die with him. Neither of his children met his expectations – his son lacked an entrepreneurial spirit, and his capable daughter faced gender bias. Fearing a loss of credibility among his peers if he chose his daughter, he set them up for failure instead. Following his death, the company experienced numerous painful episodes of family disagreements, unhappiness, hardship, betrayal, and litigation. Eventually, Ervin's daughter took charge, but the damage had been done. Moreover, she, too, faced a similar dilemma when it was her turn to choose a successor. Unable to decide between her two sons, she chose to sell the company. Eventually, her sons repurchased it, altering the energy flow within the company.
A successful handover is so much more than just the transfer of knowledge
Another example of not being ready to let go is exemplified by Giles, who established an intrapreneurial organization within one of the top five consultancies. With great passion, his purpose was to revolutionize the way large businesses collaborate with charities and humanitarian organizations. The organization experienced remarkable success, with people truly enjoying their work for these causes. Giles led the organization for 15 years until he had a mental breakdown/breakthrough, as he described it in his book. Following this episode, he found himself in a mental health care facility in Scotland and subsequently was unable to resume his role. A temporary successor was appointed, and eventually, Lisa, his right-hand operations lead, took over and has been leading the organization ever since.
Giles didn't have the opportunity to perform a proper handover since he couldn't return to his original role after a seven-month hiatus. Consequently, I consider their succession as unsuccessful. More importantly, when I asked Giles if he had emotionally let go since the incident (which occurred seven years prior to the interview), both he and Lisa responded negatively. Giles stated, "The short answer is no, I don't believe I have”.
What’s the lesson here? Well…coaching is a vital component of succession planning. As we see so strongly in these examples, a successful handover is so much more than just the transfer of knowledge. This can go unnoticed for a long time in larger organizations, but through one-to-one support companies can avoid failed handovers.