How successor willingness and motivation affects founder transitions

Succession planning is a critical process in ensuring the smooth transfer of leadership from one individual to another. In my research, I discovered that successful succession relies on the ability of both the founder and the successor to create a mutual and flowing exchange of energy. While my focus was primarily on the founder’s willingness to let go, it became evident that the successor’s motivation and willingness also played a significant role in the process. 

During my interviews with founders, I asked them to describe their purpose in life when they embarked on their initiatives. It was fascinating to observe that all of them mentioned a higher purpose, whether it was serving others or making a societal impact, all going beyond their personal needs. This was important because founders were looking for the same energy and commitment in their successors to be able to hand their projects over to. 

Successor career alignment and commitment

During my research, it was significant to notice how much impact the successor’s career aspirations had on the type of commitment and energy they displayed towards taking over an initiative and the effect this had on succession outcomes. In all successful transitions, the founder wanted to move on and do something new, and the successor wanted to take on exactly the project the founder wanted to hand over. Both energy and commitment were present in successors when they could see how their own career aspirations and needs can be fulfilled by the project.

Regina, a logistics business successor described taking over from her dad as helping them both achieve their goals. Visibly demonstrating commitment and driving the business forward with the same energy as him, enabled Regina’s dad to feel comfortable with passing the business to her:

“I guess part of it might be demonstrating that I was completely committed to the business. You know, working hard, delivering results… Striving forward on essential ways of doing business, which were fundamental to my dad, and taking those to the next degree, I guess, I would have made him feel really comfortable that, you know, this was a commitment. This was something that was important to me as well.”

The aspirations and commitment of the successor helped both parties achieve their goals and made the founder comfortable with passing on the business.

In unsuccessful transitions however, the successors’ career aspirations were misaligned and their willingness and nature of commitment were either normative (obligation, ‘should do’),  calculative (missing out, ‘have to’), imperative (no other option, ‘need to’) or a combination of these. These motivations influenced their long-term commitment to the business and, consequently, the founder’s willingness to let go. 

Anna, the founder of a business network for mothers, captured this sentiment perfectly, stating that when successors take on a business merely out of a sense of duty, it becomes a burden, killing the inspiration and joy within the company.

Another example came from Ervin, a 3rd generation insurance successor. When asked about what his motivation of joining his parents’ insurance firm was, he described it as a combination of compulsion, fear of missing out, ‘have to’ because it’s their family business and not wanting to let his parents down. His stories of 2 failed succession were packed with ‘have to’ and ‘should do’ that came from respect and loyalty to the family business. Undoubtedly these types of motivations would have influenced his willingness to stay with the business long-term, which in turn, also influenced the founder’s willingness to pass on their business. 

In short, career alignment played an important factor in successor willingness and commitment to take over a business, thus influencing the founder in their decision of letting go. 

Successor readiness and preparation

In addition to career alignment and commitment, two other factors emerged as playing a significant role in successful succession: readiness and preparation. 

When the alignment of career aspirations happens, the resonance and flow of energy exchange between founders and their successors is evident. Anna implied a timing element when she said: 

“…when the successor is really ready to take over, to step into it, to really take the responsibility out of their own needs, out of their own vision, then it’s easier really to let go.”

What Anna was talking about here is successor readiness to take full responsibility for the project. This readiness grows through mutual influence and voluntary exchange between the founder and the successor. Both mutually influence each other, their readiness developing like an upward moving spiral until they are ready. For me this seemed to be a moving, evolving, and growing emotion between both parties, mutually shaped. 

The preparation process emerged as a contributing factor to this growing feeling of readiness. Conscious preparation helped both parties get ready and, most importantly, it helped the successor work out what it would mean for them when they take over. 

Regina said:

“I discussed this with my dad over a number of years, it wasn’t an overnight thing. And that’s what made it an easy transition.”

She talked about the purpose of these discussions to resolve any disagreements or misalignments:

”So, deep, deep, deep consideration and thought… both being clear about what each party wants from it and if there’s a disconnect in any of that, you’ve got to explore it.”

In other cases, this preparation happened through osmosis over many years. Pedro and Nigel, founder and successor of a Christian faith charity worked next to each other, so the preparation to handover and thus successor readiness grew naturally:

“…because I’d been working so closely with him it almost sort of happened by osmosis…”

In summary, the successor’s willingness and motivation to take over was hugely influenced by factors such as career alignment, the type of commitment they had, their readiness to take full responsibility and preparation over time. This in turn influenced the founder’s willingness to pass on the business. 

How often do we take this into account when selecting a successor for a project or an organisation? In my experience hardly ever, which is one of the reasons these types of founder transitions fail. By prioritising career alignment, commitment, readiness, and preparation, businesses can ensure a smooth and effective handover of leadership. It is crucial to consider these factors when selecting a successor to secure the long-term success and continuity of the organisation.

This article is part of a series where I delve deeper into each factor, exploring how coaching can support the succession planning process and where HR can ensure a seamless transfer of leadership. See below a list of articles in this series for more insights on navigating successful founder transitions in organisations.

If you would like to explore how I can support you and your organisation in leadership transitions, please get in touch.

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