Why choosing a successor must be the founders choice alone

The final theme in my succession research is successor selection, which seemed to be one of the most important determining factors in successful successions. In cases where the successor naturally emerges, and the decision is clear and effortless, successful transitions are more likely to occur. This finding aligns with existing research in the field. Founders who know and trust their chosen successors can easily let go of their responsibilities. 

Pedro, the founder of a Christian faith charity, described his decision of choosing his successor:

“…we were so close professionally, he really understood it, he is so capable. It was very clear that he was head and shoulders above anyone else who could have done it.”

Anna, the founder of a business network for mothers, also described finding her successor as:

“she completely understood what we do and why we do it, and how I do it. She was not an external person taking over. It was emerging from within.”

The negative consequences of a successor being selected without the founder’s input

One of the founders I interviewed, Giles, perfectly illustrated the negative consequences of a successor being selected by organisational leadership without the founder’s input. Giles compared his transition experience to having one’s child taken by individuals who lack the necessary expertise and genuine concern for their best interests. Such circumstances hindered the natural flow of exchange between Giles and his initial successor, which resulted in Giles being unable to fully let go of his business. 

While he acknowledged their steady operational skills, Giles desired a successor who could match his visionary leadership and propel the project to new heights. However, organisational hierarchy and politics made it challenging for him to pass the project to the right individual. This aspect must be taken into account when considering succession within an organisational context.

Founders must have the autonomy to choose their successor for a successful transition to occur

I define a successful succession as:

“the transfer of both ownership and leadership of an initiative or organisation, including the transfer of power and the ‘source role’.”

In other words, I considered it a success only when the founder had emotionally let go of their power, their role as source, had moved away from managing their original project, so their energy was available to focus elsewhere.

For a transition to be successful, founders must have the autonomy to choose an obvious and natural successor. When a successor emerges in such a manner, there is a higher likelihood of developing a mutual trust and fostering a flow of exchange during the transition process. In cases where the successor is not obvious, not chosen, or chosen by someone other than the founder, constraints may arise. 

It’s crucial for HR and talent partners and organisations as a whole to consider several factors when undertaking the critical task of transition planning. Recognising the significance of allowing founders to have the autonomy to choose their successors, trusting their judgement and facilitating their involvement in the selection process can aid in a smooth transition process.

I hope this series on succession has provided you with a different lens through which you may consider viewing your succession process. A perspective that is more aligned with our innate energetic and creative powers. 

Traditional organisational structures often stifle creativity in favour of efficiency. Perhaps, adopting a more natural view when planning successions may offer alternative solutions to organisations when faced with challenges.

Throughout this series, I have emphasised the importance of personal development and increasing self- and social awareness as mitigating factors in successful transitions. If you had not yet been convinced of the value of working with an impartial trusted partner, such as a coach, mentor, or advisor, I hope this discussion has shed light on the benefits they can provide in navigating the succession journey.

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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