Learning about the relationships between founders and their projects was the most vulnerable and revealing part of my research interviews. To gain a deeper understanding, I asked founders to describe their connection with their ventures using metaphors. The words and metaphors they chose reflected their level of attachment.
Words like “facilitator”, “caretaker” or “conductor” represented a somewhat detached and temporary nature of their relationship to their venture (high-differentiation relationships). Words related to birth e.g. “mother”, “midwife” or “baby” represented the difficulties of giving birth to, nurturing, and eventually releasing the project to someone else (low-differentiation relationships). The instances in which founders maintained a separate identity from their business, resulted in smoother successions as it was easier for the founder to release their grip on the business.
Two founders expressed a very close attachment to their project, where their identities were fused with their business:
Regina, a logistics business successor, referred to her relationship with the company as “it’s a way of life. It’s not a nine to five, it’s who I was” whilst getting teary. Her business was such a big part of her identity and her life that, even after 13 years, it was a very delicate subject to talk about.
Giles, the founder of a social enterprise in one of the Big 5 passionately stated: “It was everything to me in 2014. I was it and it was me. This was everything.” He spoke with a lot of passion and sadness in his voice, and it was obvious how much it meant to him.
Fused identities can hinder succession
As a result of his low-differentiation relationship with his business, Giles struggled to fully detach himself from his project, even after 7 years. His fused identity with the initiative and a premature departure hindered his ability to let go. Recognising the need for improvement in work-life balance, emotional and social awareness, and decoupling his identity from the project, he sought assistance through coaching, gradually detaching himself over many years.
It was evident that letting go was a challenge for founders with low differentiation, but Regina managed to do so successfully by leveraging her positive past experience with succession, drawing on what she had learned about finding the right successor. What struck me about the way she described this process was the level of self-awareness and emotional / social intelligence she displayed; and the care and attention she devoted to finding the right successor at the right time. She listened to her intuition, was committed to her values, and was not going to compromise. Throughout my research these qualities emerged as facilitating factors in all successful transitions.
Self-awareness and reflective practice affects succession
In successful succession cases, low attachment and high differentiation were facilitated by self-awareness and reflective practice:
Anna, the founder of a business network for mothers, experienced a shift in focus, realising that the initiative had become burdensome and needed to be passed on. Pedro, the founder of a Christian faith charity, talked about the importance of learning about and creating awareness of others using psychometric tools, and Regina spent time reflecting together with her dad and a consultant to resolve any issues or challenges that arose between them.
These instances exemplify the development of self-awareness through reflective practice. The relationship between a founder and their project significantly influences the succession process, however, awareness, both of oneself and others, can ease the transition. Reflective practice, whether done individually or with the guidance of a coach or mentor, proved instrumental in all successful succession cases.
Coaching can facilitate self-reflection and aid in a smooth succession
Working with a coach helped Giles to disentangle his identity from his initiative. Regina and her father received support from a succession coach, enabling them to navigate difficult conversations and find mutually acceptable solutions. This had a major impact on and provided support for her second transition, which she envisioned, prepared for, and managed with great care and attention. Ervin, a 3rd generation Belgian insurance CEO, also worked with a coach to facilitate a smooth succession.
A coach can serve as a valuable sounding board, providing a safe and supportive space for founders to explore their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Through guided questioning and active listening, a coach helps founders and successors gain clarity, deepen their self-awareness, and uncover insights that may have been hidden or overlooked. Moreover, a coach can challenge individuals to explore different perspectives, question assumptions, and consider alternative approaches, fostering a more comprehensive understanding of their situation.
By engaging in reflective conversations with a coach, founders can navigate the complexities of transitions more effectively, identify their strengths and areas for growth, and develop strategies to overcome obstacles and especially when it comes to de-coupling fused identity with a project. An external perspective and expertise of a coach can be a catalyst for personal and professional development, enabling individuals to make informed decisions and embrace successful transitions with confidence. I would highly encourage founders and successors to find a partner they can trust and work with when preparing for significant transitions like succession.
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.
Articles in this series:
- 6 factors for successful founder succession in organisations
- Why founder readiness is key for a successful company handover
- The role of love and flow in successful founder succession
- The importance of shared values when choosing a successor
- How successor willingness and motivation affects founder transitions
- How the founder’s relationship with the initiative affects the success of a transition
- Why choosing a successor must be the founders choice alone