Discovering the relationship between founders and their projects during my research interviews unveiled a vulnerable and insightful picture. To gain a deeper understanding, I asked participants to describe their connection with their ventures using metaphors. The words and metaphors they chose reflected their level of attachment. Some described themselves as "facilitators," "caretakers," or "conductors," signifying a somewhat detached and temporary bond. Others used metaphors related to birth, such as "mother," "midwife," or "baby," symbolizing the challenges of nurturing and eventually letting go of the child (project) to someone else (the world). These high-differentiation relationships, where individuals maintained a separate identity from their business, made it easier for founders to release their grip on the business.
However, there were two participants whose relationship with their projects deviated significantly. They exhibited an intense emotional attachment, where their identities were fused with their businesses, indicating low differentiation. For example Regina, a logistics business successor, emotionally expressed, "It's a way of life. It's not a nine to five... it's... it's who I was." Her business constituted a significant part of her identity, making it a delicate subject even after 13 years. Similarly, Giles, the founder of a social enterprise in one of the Big 5, passionately stated, "It was everything to me in 2014. I was it, and it was me. This was everything." It was evident that letting go was a challenge for founders with low differentiation, but Regina managed to do so successfully by leveraging her positive past experience with succession, drawing on what she had learned about finding the right successor. Her self-awareness, emotional intelligence, commitment to her values, and refusal to compromise were instrumental not only in her own succession but also in all successful transitions.
Fused identity with the initiative can hinder succession
On the other hand, Giles struggled to fully detach himself from his project, even after 7 years. His fused identity with the initiative and a premature departure hindered his ability to let go. Recognizing the need for improvement in work-life balance, emotional and social awareness, and decoupling his identity from the project, he sought assistance through coaching, gradually detaching himself over many years.
In successful succession cases, low attachment and high differentiation were facilitated by self-awareness and reflective practice. Anna, the founder of a business network for mothers, experienced a shift in focus, realizing that the initiative had become burdensome and needed to be passed on. These instances exemplify the development of self-awareness through reflective practice, which is present in all successful succession cases.
To summarize, the nature of the relationship between a founder and their project significantly influences the succession process. I argue that awareness, both of oneself and others, along with reflective practice, can ease the transfer of projects to others. Reflective practice, whether done individually or with the guidance of a coach or mentor, proved instrumental in all successful succession cases.
Giles' experience with a coach helped him disentangle his identity from his initiative, while Regina and her father received support from an succession coach, enabling them to navigate difficult conversations and find mutually acceptable solutions.
Having a coach to assist with reflection during any transition process is of paramount importance.
A coach serves as a valuable sounding board, providing a safe and supportive space for individuals to explore their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Through guided questioning and active listening, a coach helps individuals gain clarity, deepen their self-awareness, and uncover insights that may have been hidden or overlooked. Moreover, a coach can challenge individuals to explore different perspectives, question assumptions, and consider alternative approaches, fostering a more comprehensive understanding of their situation.
By engaging in reflective conversations with a coach, individuals can navigate the complexities of transitions more effectively, identify their strengths and areas for growth, and develop strategies to overcome obstacles and especially when it comes to de-coupling fused identity with a project. The external perspective and expertise of a coach can be a catalyst for personal and professional development, enabling individuals to make informed decisions and embrace successful transitions with confidence.