Reframing “Letting Go”

Carol Ryan
Carol Ryan

Recently I was at my own family’s business board meeting. We are at a transition point in leadership.

 We started to have a bit of a discussion about the difficult topic of succession. It began with a discussion around how to “replace” the CEO and founder of the company. While listening to the various comments, experiencing a strong feeling of resistance from some and push from others I remembered how difficult this inevitable stage is for all family businesses.

 At FBCG we frequently field calls for family businesses that need a “succession plan” or we have organizations contact us about having someone come and deliver a talk about succession planning. Our leadership series book on succession planning is hands down the most popular of all of our books.

But what really struck me while sitting in a board room with my own family, was the struggle that occurs from an emotional, a family, and a developmental perspective. While you can talk about structures and mechanisms and best practices all you want, and they are definitely important, it seems to me it is equally, if not more important, to be able to wrap your mind around the struggle to understand what is going on with the founder or head of the company when they start to realize that a transition is inevitable. I believe that when you understand this you begin to understand what is keeping this important stage in the life cycle of a business from happening.

And lets not forget the flip side of this transition, the “one in waiting”. They have experienced a seemingly endless wait, they usually have an internal struggle to not push too hard but then at the same time to be heard and for someone to understand, “Hey it’s my turn! “

We can always wait around for the proverbial bus to hit…but is that really the best way? Of course not!

The challenge is, how do you make someone, often in their seventies or eighties, feel good about the fact that they are in the last third of their life? The truth is the incumbent knows that they need to move on for the business and often for the sake of their relationship with the child that has stuck it out and is waiting. But the gap between knowing this intellectually, and being able to act on it in the face of powerful emotions, is another thing altogether.

No matter what though, some kind of transition will happen. Whether the transition ends up well-planned and intentional, or comes about due to a sudden change in circumstances, it will still be a sad day for both the incumbent and the next generation.

An important ‘process’ point that is often overlooked is the need to honor the range of feelings, whatever they are, anger, disappointment, sadness, grief – that come about as a result of this transition.

Possibly we think about something ceremonial to mark the day. In addition, we want to ensure the incumbent has thought through a plan for his or her retirement, a solid process to make the transition occur. We want to be sure there is a system in place to ensure the successor has the best chance at success in his or her new role.

 But, after dealing with all these practical dimensions, we could say it’s okay just to cave to the sadness for a bit, understand there is a grieving process. In so doing, be mindful and intentional about acknowledging what was built and by whom so as not to focus too much on the loss but rather what has been gained for the family, for the community, for customers and employees. We all know there is a business there and a legacy that we are trying to steward along to the next generation.

And my last piece of advice? …. as family members, board members and advisors just remember that no matter how frustrating it gets, no matter how difficult , no matter which process or path finally gets taken… something as simple as a little empathy and understanding for all can go a long way…. (Recommended reading: Dan McAdams, The Redemptive Self, Stories Americans Live By)


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