The Successor’s Transition Journey

The Successor’s Transition Journey
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Transitioning ownership of a business is a journey, most obviously for the person transitioning out of ownership (the transitioner). Less appreciated, perhaps, are the challenges a successor encounters on the journey to business ownership. Read about the successor’s transition journey.

We’ve written frequently about some of the transitioner’s challenges (e.g., preserving relationships, cutting the ties between owner and business, mentoring successors, to name few) and dilemmas that transitioners encounter when turning over ownership. In this article we focus some of the challenges successors face and how we help transitioners and successor minimize or avoid them.

Walking The Line: The Successor’s Transition Journey

Successors to owners of successful businesses walk a fine line. They must:

  • Express enthusiasm about the prospect of leadership without being perceived as pushy or entitled to it.
  • Initiate sometimes-difficult conversations while keeping the peace.
  • Have a vision for the future of the business while respecting the legacy of the transitioner.

In the transition of a family business, successors and transitioners typically want to preserve the parent-adult child relationship while simultaneously forging a new business-focused or transitioner/successor relationship.

It’s not at all surprising then that many successors struggle with this balancing act and become frustrated when they feel ready to lead a business yet the transitioner disagrees.

Crossing the Line

As Transition Guides, we know that both transitioners and successors do not dance effortlessly through their transition journeys. We also appreciate the fine line successors walk, and we anticipate that, at some point, they will step off or over it. To prevent a transition from failing, we recommend bumpers, planning, conversations, and best of intentions.

Soft Bumpers

We’ve all seen bumper cars at amusement parks: the edges of the car are encased in soft rubber bumpers that cushion the blow when cars collide with each other or edge of the track. Now imagine a successor at the wheel of a bumper car. When (not if) the successor makes an error in judgement when executing a new or difficult task, rather run over the edge of a cliff, or damage the vehicle, the successor—with or without the help of the transitioner—learns a lesson and puts the car back on the road. Contrast bumpers with guardrails: guardrails tell successors only that they did something wrong. Bumpers convey the same information yet keep successors safe and the transition moving in the right direction.

Careful Planning

It’s the transitioner’s job to surround successors in bumpers that are appropriate to every stage of the transition journey. They also must let their successors know that they’ve installed bumpers to protect, rather than restrict, their successors.

One way we help transitioners create bumpers is to help them craft plans that describe the actions (or focus items) successors must take to reach the owner’s transition milestones. For example, a transitioner might want her successor to assume responsibility for the company’s accounting functions. The transitioner’s plan would include a target completion date, anticipate likely obstacles (e.g., removing some responsibilities to allow the successor to learn accounting), set a short-term goal (e.g., complete a management accounting course) and then monitor the successor’s progress.


Ideally, when transitioners and successors discuss a future business transition or issues that arise during a transition, both are vulnerable and transparent. In the real world, however, conversations tend to be guarded or vague, and/or burdened by history. Guarded because so much is at stake. Vague because many transitioners haven’t set their goals for the transition or identified their deal breakers (i.e., the objectives they will not sacrifice). Loaded because, especially in family-business transitions, successors can’t help but hear what transitioners say through long-lived filters.

We’ve created four simple communication rules to help both transitioners and successors engage in productive conversations.

Rule 1:  Be prepared. Understand what information you seek and try to anticipate what the other person may think or feel and consider possible responses.

Rule 2:  Be honest and appropriately transparent.

Rule 3:  Make no promises.

Rule 4:  Do not try to persuade anyone to do something they don’t want to do.

Best of Intentions

Despite cushy bumpers, careful plans, and emotionally intelligent conversations, misunderstandings will happen. Lines will be crossed. That’s why we ask successors and transitioners to always assume that the other has the best of intentions.

In one of our engagements, for example, the transitioner had been a strict taskmaster to his two sons during their childhood. Whenever they made a mistake, he clearly communicated his disapproval because he believed that doing so was the best way to keep his sons from repeating the mistake. When the father told his adult sons that he wanted them to take over the business, they were interested but so conditioned to fear their father’s disapproval and convinced that there was no way they could succeed in his eyes, that they initially refused.

Instead lasting six to twelve months, this transition took seven years. It took that long for us to help:

  • The transitioner learn to communicate productively and to create bumpers and a plan that clearly described how each son could succeed at each task.
  • The sons overcome their expectation of disappointing their father learn to engage him without fear.

At the conclusion of the transition process, the father took his position as chairman of the board and his sons have led the company to continued success.

The Role of a Successor

Being a business owner isn’t easy, but neither is becoming an owner. Successors have to learn new skills, engage others, communicate well and produce positive results to prove to transitioners that they are capable and ready to assume leadership.

We measure our Transition Roadmaps by how well they preserve important relationships and meet most of a transitioner’s objectives. We also help successors walk the fine line to achieve ownership because no transition is successful unless successors are prepared lead a company to a prosperous future. 

We have a free workshop series that helps successors and transitioners navigate their upcoming business transition. If you are transitioner or successor, click here to learn more.

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