When was the last time you thought about how you do what you do to make your company successful? If you are like most owners, the answer is “I don’t think about how I do what I do. I just do it.” Part of succession planning, however, involves teaching a successor to do what you do. We call this phase of succession planning “The Dance of Business Successor Development.”
The Dance of Business Successor Development
Before the dance begins, you create a curriculum meaning you break down what appear to be (and often are) complicated tasks into their component parts and explain each part in sequence. Because owners know their “subjects” so well, the often unwittingly skip steps. Fortunately, there are coaches who can help owners organize their curriculum, and once the curriculum is set, the dance can begin.
Part 1 of the Dance: You Lead, Your Successor Follows
In the earliest phase of the dance, you are the leader who teaches your successor the steps. One part of the Transition Roadmaps™ that we develop for owners is a Transition Timeline™. On the Timeline are milestones, and each describes what you must teach and what your successor must learn. In order, the milestones mark increasing levels of a successor’s responsibility and authority within your business.
As capable and enthusiastic as your successor may be, they don’t come to the dance floor as champion dancers. It’s your job to teach your successor in an organized way so that you both gain confidence in their ability to lead.
Part 2 of the Dance: You and Your Successor Alternate the Lead
Have you ever watched two people dancing while each attempts to lead? There’s always a struggle for control and many missteps and usually a few bruised toes. This phase of the dance is tricky because as successors begin to assume greater levels of responsibility, they make mistakes and owners must let them. It’s awkward, and miscommunication and misunderstandings are almost inevitable.
Let’s assume that when you let your successor make a decision, your successor either doesn’t know what you expect or steps up in a way you do not anticipate. Or your successor wonders why you don’t trust them when you fail to yield the lead. These scenarios are natural, but not painless as the following story of owner “Ned” and son “Adam” illustrates.
Every day Ned arrived in the office an hour before other employees and usually left an hour later. When he turned over the task of supervising the company’s work crews to his son, Adam, Ned expected to see Adam in the office early as well. That didn’t happen.
Ned held his tongue for a week all the while wondering if he’d made a mistake naming Adam as his successor. He wondered if his son felt entitled or was lazy. After two weeks, Ned confronted Adam. “If you aren’t dedicated enough to this company to get to work on time, you aren’t the one to take over for me.”
Not surprisingly, Adam felt ambushed and asked what his father thought he was doing. “I don’t know! Wasting time at an expensive gym?”
Before storming out of the room, Adam responded, “Before you step into the office, I’ve already called every project manager. I know what they are doing that day and what they need from us. It’s too bad you think that’s ‘wasting time.’”
As I said, awkward and painful.
Phase 3 of the Dance: Your Successor Leads.
In the last phase of the dance, your successor leads, and you follow. Once you have taught and mentored your successor well and they have mastered the tasks, it’s time for your successor to lead. Yes, until you leave the dance floor, you follow your successor’s lead. They will likely do the steps a bit differently than you would and may not be as graceful as you were. Realistically, they will never dance as you did because they have a completely different set of experiences and skills.
Bandaging Bruised Toes
Ned and Adam could have avoided bruising their relationship had they known and followed our three rules of engagement.
- Always assume the other party as the best of intentions.
- Be honest and never accusatory.
- Be playful.
(You can learn more about these three rules in Three Rules of Engagement for Successor Development in Succession Planning chapter of our book: It’s A Journey.)
The day you receive final payment for your equity is certainly a big day, yet owners tell us that the pinnacle for them was the day that—due to their hard work and patience—their successors were able to confidently lead their companies. From our experience, we know that the most successful owners don’t just star in their succession plans; they generously turn the spotlight over to their successors.
Elizabeth Ledoux is a co-author of the award-winning It’s A Journey: The MUST-HAVE Roadmap to Successful Succession Planning, as well as Accelerate Your Entrepreneurial Flight and Understanding the Growth of the Entrepreneur. She frequently speaks to organizations and business owners about challenges and opportunities in private and family business transitions, business and individual growth, and the business succession journey.