8 emotional lessons of succession

By Mike Sipple, Jr, Mike Sipple, Sr.

In 2012, our family business began a healthy succession process – but do not mistake “healthy” for “painless.” We did all the right things — planned, brought in outside advisers. However, while the emotions were expected, they were woefully underestimated. Succession is a mind game with opposing views from one generation to the next. Here’s what we learned about the emotional challenges that come with the process: 

1.    An outside adviser is essential for cutting through emotions. We don’t believe our transition would have been healthy without an outside adviser walking us through the process. We enlisted the help of a trusted friend and business adviser who facilitated our succession discussions. Without her guidance, we would have avoided tough topics, left meetings with misunderstandings and pushed aside succession decisions to work on more immediate business decisions, ultimately driving a wedge between us.

An outside voice is invaluable during the transition because of the emotional dynamics that will naturally come to the surface. The right adviser keeps you focused on the objective when emotions are running high.

2.    Differing timelines can be a great source of frustration. The senior generation will likely want to be very deliberate about preparing the next generation.

Conversely, the NextGens may be eager for the transition.

3.    As successful as the current business strategies have been, the next generation will make changes. New leaders will want to make changes. That’s a good thing. This desire to innovate is what businesses need to stay competitive, but the changes can be hard on the outgoing leader.

4.    Decisions impact more than the incoming and outgoing president. Decisions around succession greatly affect at least three parties: family of the current leadership, family of the next generation and the business. An outside adviser can help you stay on track until a decision can be reached that satisfies all three parties involved.

5.    A sense of obligation is not a good reason to be the successor. We know too many people who stepped into leadership because they felt obligated to, which set them up for personal and professional failures. We learned from others’ mistakes – it’s not good or right to assume that a family member is the best choice as successor.

As a result, we joined a robust program called The Next Generation Institute through The Goering Center for Family and Private Business in Cincinnati, to help us critically evaluate the commitment and fit of having Mike Jr. as the successor.

6.    Other family members need to be part of the succession process. Acknowledge other family members who may be impacted by these conversations so that relationships are not damaged.

7.    Emotions cause you to make bad decisions. Uncomfortable conversations come up the further you dig during succession planning. Disagreement and alignment must be created through layers of dialogue. To avoid the immediate discomfort, you move quickly, only to face larger issues later. For example, it was hard to talk about death, divorce and incapacitation – our own or that of our loved-ones. However, those are topics that need to be thoroughly discussed when succession is on the table. All the ugly “what-if’s” need to be dealt with so that the business and other families are taken care of if any of them become a reality.

8.    A heaviness comes with leadership. The thrill of stepping into leadership and getting to develop new strategies is a great feeling, but the surprising emotion was the heaviness that came with it. The outgoing generation is counting on the next generation to be successful. It takes a lot of work not to feel the weight of the world when you are taking over leadership.

There are many more lessons we learned through the process, but it was the emotions that were the obstacle. They often keep people from making tough decisions and applying the appropriate level of detail. Now, we see the process as a blessing because we know many don’t have the opportunity to plan for succession as we did. Six years later, we can look back and say that our transition has been a good one.

Mike Sipple, Jr. is president of Centennial Talent Strategy & Executive Search and co-founder and CEO of Talent Magnet Institute; Mike Sipple, Sr. is chairman and CEO of Centennial Talent Strategy & Executive Search and co-founder of Talent Magnet Institute.

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