Succession Series | Coaching

Why Choosing a Successor Must Be the Founder's Choice

By Timea Kristof, Hult EF Coach

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High potentials

Choosing the right successor is a critical factor in the success of any transition process, as highlighted in my research on succession. In cases where the successor naturally emerges and the decision is clear and effortless, successful transitions are more likely to occur. This finding aligns with existing research in the field. Founders who know and trust their chosen successors can easily let go of their responsibilities. Conversely, when the successor is not chosen or when the decision is unclear - turmoil can ensue within the business.

One of my research founders, Giles, perfectly illustrated the negative consequences of when a successor is selected by organizational leadership without the founder's input. Giles compared this situation to having one's child taken by individuals who lack the necessary expertise and genuine concern for the child's best interests. Such circumstances hindered the natural flow of exchange between Giles and his initial successor.

While he acknowledged their steady operational skills, Giles desired someone who could match his visionary leadership and propel the project to new heights. However, organizational hierarchy and politics made it challenging for him to pass the project to the right individual. This aspect must be taken into account when considering succession within an organizational context.

I define successful succession as the complete transfer of ownership, leadership, power, and the source role, including the emotional detachment of the founder from the original project.

For a transition to be successful, founders must have the autonomy to choose an obvious and natural successor. When a successor emerges in such a manner, there is a higher likelihood of developing a mutual trust and fostering a flowing and energetic exchange during the transition process. In cases where the successor is not obvious, not chosen, or chosen by someone other than the founder, constraints may arise.

It is crucial for HR and Talent professionals and organizations as a whole to consider several factors when undertaking this critical task. Firstly, they should recognize the significance of allowing founders to have the autonomy to choose their successors, as founders possess valuable insights and knowledge about their projects that nobody else does. Trusting their judgment and facilitating their involvement in the selection process can foster a stronger sense of ownership and commitment from both parties.

Secondly, organizations need to create an environment that encourages the emergence of potential successors from within. Nurturing talent and providing opportunities for growth and development can help identify individuals who align closely with the organization's mission, vision, and values.

Lastly, HR professionals should emphasize the importance of assessing not only the technical skills but also the passion, drive, and alignment with the founder's vision when considering potential successors. This holistic approach ensures a better match between the founder's expectations and the capabilities of the chosen successor, enhancing the chances of a smooth and successful transition. By considering these factors and implementing effective successor selection practices, HR and Talent professionals and organizations can set the stage for a seamless leadership transition that ensures continuity and future success.

This series on succession has provided a unique perspective through which to view the succession process—one that is more aligned with our innate energetic and creative powers as humans. Traditional organizational structures often stifle creativity in favour of efficiency. Therefore, adopting a more natural lens when organizing and handing over initiatives may offer alternative solutions when faced with challenges. Additionally, I have emphasized the importance of personal development and increasing self- and social awareness as mitigating factors in successful transitions. If you have not yet been convinced of the value of working with an impartial trusted partner, such as a coach, mentor, or advisor, I hope this discussion has shed light on the benefits they can provide in navigating the succession journey.

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