Passing the Torch

Having a succession plan in place before a crisis arises will help to ensure a smooth transition of leadership.

Whether you are planning for disaster, or preparing to hand over the business to the next generation, having a succession plan in place is always a good idea. Without one, your successors will founder around, no one really certain of what they are doing until someone either rises to the occasion and takes charge, or they decide to sell the business and save themselves the headache. The bottom line is that if you want your business to survive you as you intend it to be, if you want it to continue to be profitable and vital long after you cease your day-to-day management; then (as a certain financial planning commercial so aptly says) you, my friend, you need a plan.

Now, we are not talking about a one-size-fits-all, step-by-step procedure that you must follow to avert the pandemonium that will likely ensue with your departure from the business. Every business is different, every situation is different and yours is no exception. You don’t just need to do the right things in the right order; you need to do the right things for your business and for yourself. That said, there are several things you can do to make the transition from your leadership to that of your successor as smooth as possible.

The Roman Emperor Diocletian, who split the empire between East and West, came up with a system of succession called the tetrarchy, or the rule of four. Each of the emperors, the Augusti, would choose a junior emperor, called Caesars. These junior emperors would be trained and groomed to one day take over according to a timetable devised by the Augusti. Then, on a certain predetermined date, the Augusti would retire and then the Caesars would step into that office and choose new Caesars, starting the whole cycle over again. That, at least, was the theory. In practice, ego and factional politics quickly got in the way. However, what may not have been successful in ensuring the imperial succession in an empire that comprised the entire Mediterranean world certainly will work as a framework to ensure a smooth succession in your small business.

Create a Training Program

Diocletian did not just make a choice and let the chips fall where they may. He knew what he wanted to impart to his successor, the skills that person would need to carry on. You need to approach this in the same fashion. You need to identify the critical functions of the company. These are the places where your successor will be spending most of their time, though you want them involved in every aspect of the business so they see the same big picture that you do. You need to be prepared to step back a little and permit your Caesar to grow into the leadership role you are grooming them for. That means they have to learn and they have to be able to make mistakes. They also have to find their own voice and style, and if you can create a program that encourages that to happen while meeting your business goals, you will create an atmosphere of success, and the person you are grooming will earn a level of respect from your employees and the succession will be much easier for everyone.

Anoint Your Successor

The funny thing about Roman succession was that it tended to be through adoption. The emperor would find a likely candidate from among his generals or within his household and adopt that person as his son in order to groom him for the imperial office. Sometimes such a candidate would emerge naturally; sometimes the emperor would have to look for them. The same thing applies for your business. You may have several people within your organization who you know could step into the leadership role with some training, or you might not. Either way, you need to have a very close look at the possibilities, asking questions such as who has the skills and abilities needed to lead. If you need help—and you might—then put together a search committee or consult your board of directors. Getting outside advice like this is important since it adds to the objectivity of the process and may open your eyes to candidates you had not considered before.

Build Your Timetable

A good succession takes time to plan and develop. Diocletian understood that he would have to spend years grooming his successor before he could retire to his hobby of growing cabbages. You should expect to do the same (cabbage growing is optional, of course). Experts generally agree that you should begin to plan for your succession about 15 years before you actually intend to retire. This may seem to be a long time, but those years will give you a chance to oversee your successor as they learn the business and sharpen their skills.

Your timetable has two purposes. The first is to provide a framework for your successor’s training. After all, you want to see measurable progress. A training timetable with measurable goals and deadlines provides motivation and a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities you expect your successor to take on. The second function is to map out the shift in control of the company. Often, these will go hand-in-hand as your successor takes on more and more responsibility. It also helps the rest of the company understand who is in charge of what, when and who answers to who.

Prepare for Retirement

You have worked hard, you have designated a successor and now you can plan for yourself. That was how Diocletian saw it. After years of war and politics, he was looking forward to living out a quiet life with his cabbages. Moreover, he wanted his counterpart in the Western half of the Empire to enjoy retirement as well. What are you looking forward to? Is it travel, learning something new, quiet times with your family? Whatever it is, as your successor takes on more and more of the daily responsibilities associated with your business, you should spend time planning how you will continue to lead an energized and positive life away from your business.

Install Your Successor

If you are thinking that your successor will take over completely upon your death, think again. Diocletian made a point in his system of the tetrarchy to install his successor while he was still alive. Why? Because doing so eliminated any question of legitimacy. It didn’t matter which son was descended from what royal line. The emperor made his choice and gave the office. End of argument. The same applies to you. By purposefully installing your successor into your leadership position, you smooth the process by ending any questions or arguments regarding who is really in charge.

You have created a framework, provided the necessary training and established a culture that encourages success and within that framework and culture you have allowed your successor to grow into the role you have given him. That was your job and now your job is done. Now that you have handed over the reins of power, it is time for you to step back, to begin to execute your own plans for the future and release your successor to his fate. Whether he succeeds or fails is up to him.

In Case of Emergency

All of that, of course, represents the best case scenario. We all know, however, that life—or death—can intervene and disrupt even the best laid plans. In ancient Rome, that would often lead to periods of chaos as rival generals—usually crowned by their own men—fought it out until one emerged as the winner. That was how Diocletian came to power and what he wanted to avoid with his succession scheme.

This is why it is so important to begin your succession plans as soon as possible, that you—at the very least—have someone in mind. It is better, though, that you make that choice as soon as possible, start that person’s training and set them firmly on the path to leadership. That way, if something should happen to you, at least you will have someone to succeed you. True, they won’t have you to teach them, but they will not be alone. Your board, if you have one, will be there, as will the rest of your management team. They can help, offer advice and even mentoring in some cases.

Succession planning is not an easy thing to do, there are many details, legal issues, tax implications, and changing conditions that you will need to have a handle on, but if you care about the future of your business, it is well worth the effort. The good thing is that you don’t have to manage the whole thing alone. Get the advice and assistance of your accountant and attorney, your venture capital or angel investors, and your investment or insurance professionals. Their expertise will prove both useful and vital to the success of your plan. —Charles Cooper

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