Why you need a plan for replacing yourself at your business

Why you need a plan for replacing yourself at your business

By Jo Hawkins Donovan, for SBT

When I was on the faculty of Marshall University in Huntington, W.V., the entire town was stopped in its tracks one November night. A chartered plane carrying Marshall’s football team, coaches and 75 fans crashed in the trees just short of the airport in Huntington. There were no survivors, and there were no families in that town who were not touched somehow by the tragedy.
I knew nearly everyone involved and would have been on the plane myself except that my husband planned a surprise trip for us to go to Cincinnati to see the Bengals play that weekend. I was touched deeply by any number of stories cascading from that accident.
The one thing that stands out as I thought about this column was the plan that the parents of my godchildren had put in place. My beloved friends had done that hard thing, faced that difficult question, "Who do we want to raise our children in the case that we can’t?"
For these sweet toddlers, the plan was on paper. Their dad’s brother and his wife would be their guardians in case the parents both died prematurely. So for this one family, there was no legal tussle, no corruption of family relationships. The parents had put a plan in place. There were many other families that struggled for years with the issue.
When I coach business owners, the results they want to achieve usually relate to their organization’s strategic plan; they nearly all have that in place. Some haven’t incorporated the marketing goals and strategies into the plan, and we may do some coaching around that. Even more business owners, or heads of non-profit organizations, "put off" creating a strategy for succession planning.
Succession planning must be part of the ongoing, dynamic process that helps a business align its goals and all the talent within the organization. In fact, many studies are now calling it "talent management."
Whatever you call it, I think it is as necessary and as difficult as choosing a guardian for your children in case you disappear from the planet. Parents do this tough thing because of how much they care for their children. Business owners do this tough thing because of how much they care for the sustainability of their business.
The plan first addresses the changing needs of the organization as senior management ages and retires. Large corporations and government typically have systems in place for succession.
Small businesses are more at risk and may collapse after the CEO leaves – or does not leave. The founder of the business may no longer be keeping up with changes in the overall marketplace, but he may be unaware of that and stubborn about keeping his position. How do you oust the founder! A solid plan can include mandatory retirement ages and steps to ensure that someone is prepared to assume the top post.
Second, strong succession planning can help you make sure there is an adequate talent pool for the future. Open communication about the commitment to development of all employees can prevent "talent blocking."
Employees can be groomed to step into leadership roles. The plan can define policies for recruiting external talent, and include strategies for integrating new talent with internal talent. New executives can be given the opportunity to learn the culture and be coached by the leadership in place, before stepping into their shoes.
Of course, succession planning helps you prepare for an unexpected event. We’ve all been through enough in the past years to know that the loss of one or more key executives can occur suddenly. With no map to follow, an organization can be thrown into chaos or paralysis. The succession plan can help everyone know who will assume command in a crisis or sudden loss of leadership. The shared vision and values, sometimes sculpted with a lot of sweat and soul-searching during the planning process, can be sustained.
If your organization lacks this essential piece, you might do some thinking about why that’s the case.
We’re all seduced by magical thinking now and then, and can tell ourselves we have lots and lots of time to tend to succession planning. It might be difficult to imagine anyone else running your business, your "baby" that you conceived and raised up from your own inspired determination.
You may just fear losing control, or be unable to imagine another life for yourself outside of your president’s office.
If you want a sustainable business — and who doesn’t — it’s essential that you make talent management an ongoing part of how you operate. The plan must be clear and embraced by everyone in the management team. Like strategic planning in it’s entirety, the plan must be kept fresh and in tune with internal and external changes.
It’s one of the best ways I know of, to ensure that all your hard work and sacrifice will result in the legacy you want.

Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay, and can be reached at 414-332-0300, or jo@hawkinsdonovan.com. The firm’s Web site is www.hawkinsdonovan.com. Hawkins Donovan will respond to your questions in this column. Her column appears in every other issue of SBT.

Sept. 5, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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