How to name a successor and still remain a happy family


Today’s letter is from Ron in Maine:

Dear Coach Pete,

I have 3 sons and a daughter all working in the business.  They’re all doing a good job and I know how lucky I am to have them all here.  I am also getting more nervous about facing the reality of having to name one of them as my successor.  My wife and I fear that decision could cause a major divide amongst the broader family.  They all have spouses and I can see their spouses getting their heart set on their spouse being the next president. 

What a great question Ron!  As you noted you are so lucky to have them there.  I also get at the same time that you don’t want this succession discussion to blow up the whole thing up.  Ok, I have your one stop, easy solution: Sit them all down in the room and tell them that you love them all so much that you couldn’t possibly choose one over the other, then bring in your new high powered CEO you just hired from outside that they now work for.  You’re done!  Problem solved!

Ok, I realize that might not be the right answer.  I can really feel your pain having my own children and really faced with idea of picking one over the other would be so difficult even though they have lobbied for that a couple of times.  You know you don’t say specifically Ron, but I’m assuming you have a little bit of time between now and when you need to make the decision.  This process can be done right if you take some time.  We just finished a 5 year process with a family.  We named the next president and everyone’s still happy because they really understood how it was all going to happen and when it was all going to happen.

One of the first guiding principles I ask all of my families to sign off on is, let’s get good at making business decisions, because as one of my colleagues says is, the business is what throws the party.  It’s what provides our financial abundance and security.  So first and foremost we need to get good at making business decisions, not just family decisions.   Next, sit everyone down in the room and take them through the process step by step with a timeframe.  What I found is the biggest concern that both candidates and their spouses have is that it’s not going be a fair process.  But when you have transparency with everybody in the room and you outline the process, that’s going to really set you up for a successful outcome.  I have steps outlined here that you can download and these are proven and they have worked time and time again with families.  When you get in this process, the best candidates will emerge over time but here’s another important thing, really involve some outside advisor because they can bring a different perspective and they can say things to your kids that you cannot say to them.  Be careful, don’t pick your attorney buddy you have known forever; who’s known the family forever.  Get a business coach.  Get someone who has expertise in leadership.  It will really make a big difference in the process.

Ron, keep reinforcing the good idea of your good business decision, be transparent with the process and have update meetings annually or semi-annually and I think you will have good outcomes.  Here’s my challenge to you:  Pick a date for the first meeting and if you send it to me, I will hold you accountable from afar, but if you send me that date I will send you a list of leadership competencies we’ve developed with many great companies over the years that will really help the process get started.

As always, email this on to anyone you know who could benefit from this.  Send us your successes, your challenges, your other questions – we share them here with all the families and that’s how all the families get better and learn from each other.  Remember a great family business has a lot of important positions to fill.  As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, “You need to get the right people in the right seat on the bus.”  Now get back in the game and play to your potential.

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