The role of love and flow in successful founder successions

Succession planning is a critical process in organisations, ensuring a smooth transfer of power and leadership. Through my research, I discovered a crucial element that underlies successful succession: the natural flow of exchange, in other words, love. In this article, I will delve into the significance of flow and love in the succession planning process, drawing on interviews and real-life examples. Understanding this secret sauce can provide a fresh perspective on succession planning, incorporating the founder’s source energy and love. So, let’s explore how love plays a pivotal role in successful succession.

A natural flow of exchange leads to an effortless succession process

During my research, I noticed that when there was a natural flow of exchange between the founder, their initiative and the successor, the succession process happened easily and effortlessly. Incidentally, it was the last thing I discovered as it was so obvious that I didn’t see it until one day I woke up with an ‘AHA’ moment: flow and love is what connects all my findings to make sense. 

In this theme of flow and love, I included founders having flow with the initiative, and the successor, listening to intuition, and synchronicity. They seemed to be interconnected and formed an integral part of both the creation and handover process, so I kept them together as a theme and considered them as facilitating (indicated with an upward arrow) factors for succession.

how intuition, sensing and noticing affect succession

I noticed during all interviews of successful transitions that they all talked about listening to their intuition, sensing, and feeling when it was time for things to happen, from starting up the initiative, to choosing the right successor and noticing when it was time to make the next step, or to let go. Founders seemed to describe being in a kind of flow state or energy, having an ease and synchronicity in creating their projects, and equally so when passing it on.

Anna (a German founder) talked about how easy it was when she created her business network for mothers, everything was seamless, and she said she “was on fire”.

Giles, who set up a social enterprise within one of the big 5 management consultancies, also described the start of his project and what it was like when he followed his intuition:

“… you’re being so much in the dark, and you’re almost like channelling a download of what’s to happen. I didn’t know what I was doing. It didn’t seem like it was an obvious thing we were doing… But it was this kind of knowing; it was this kind of ‘I can’t not do this. This has to be done.’”

Regina, who took over her father’s logistics business described this transition as:

“So he was transitioning anyway, it just became kind of an easy next step… it just flowed to that… it wasn’t difficult… it wasn’t…. You know, it’s about being in that state of flow. When it just seems like the logical next step to make. It’s intrinsic, it’s intuitive.”

And many years later, when she selected the buyer to pass her business over to, she said:

“and I just knew that, if that [selling] was the right thing, it would happen. And the timing was right, you know…”.

Pedro, the founder of a UK based Christian faith charity, said when I asked how he knew when it was time to move on:

“yeah, so, but, you know, again, it was just, I felt deep down, like that was the right thing to do”.

Defining a natural flow of exchange (aka love)

Listening to all the interviews, the definition of natural flow of exchange became:

“When two people are engaged in a relationship, which is mutually fulfilling and enriching, without coercion, simply voluntarily and, therefore, they are able to transfer their initiative in a loving and caring way.”

A block in the exchange

When I saw or felt signs of this type of exchange being described in interviews, the transfer seemed effortless and easy. When I heard a block in the exchange, the founder was not able to let go of their initiative and held onto it for many years thus not being able to move on. This block came from various places: fear of letting go, losing face among peers or not being able to imagine life after or without the organisation.

Examples of unsuccessful transitions

A great example came from Ervin, the CEO of a 3rd generation Belgian insurance company who shared several stories of unsuccessful transitions in his family business. His founder grandfather told both of his children to carry on with the company, setting them up to fight. He was unwilling to pass it on and wanted the business to die with him. He was also unwilling to choose between his 2 children because none of them was the right choice for him. One of them was not entrepreneurial enough, the other one was capable, but was a woman. At that time, he would lose his credibility among his peers if he chose his daughter.

After his death and many painful episodes of family disagreements, unhappiness, hardship, betrayal, and litigation, eventually the company ended up being led by his daughter. She had 2 sons, Ervin, and his brother, and here I heard another unsuccessful family transition story. In her case, it was about not being able to decide between 2 sons as a mother. She couldn’t, so she didn’t. She decided to sell the company instead.

As you can see, there was very little evidence of flow of exchange among participants. The flow only returned when Ervin’s brother decided to buy the company back and invited Ervin to join him. The brother became the new ‘source’, and the company has been flourishing ever since. They celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2022 and although you could consider it to be a successful company, the transitions were not successful according to my definition. The emotional and psychological cost to all parties and their families involved were huge over the years, which is why the brothers decided not to pass the business onto their own children.

The Power of Flow of Love in Succession Planning

I hope you got the idea of why flow and love became apparent as the secret sauce of succession and why using this lens might give us a different perspective on succession. I agree with Peter Koenig who thinks it is the most natural way of creating anything in the world and we use it all the time when we come up with an idea and make it happen. So, it would also make sense to take care of and include the founder’s source of energy and love in the succession process too. Stay tuned for further insights on navigating the intricate world of succession planning.

This article is part of a series where I will 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 find out more about founder succession coaching, please get in touch.

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