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Succession Planning – Allowing Time for the Expected and Unexpected

Mar 7, 2023
By Leron Lehman

Categories: Family Business Transition & Succession Solutions

Succession Planning – Allowing Time for the Expected and Unexpected

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “Good things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” Patience is certainly a virtue, but it should never be confused with complacency. When it comes to planning for the future ownership and leadership of your business, Lincoln was on to something – waiting around and hoping for the best is a poor strategy.

Succession planning is a long-term process which includes many complexities and nuances. Each situation is unique and requires thoughtful attention, but there are helpful frameworks and models to rely on with common patterns. The core objective of a succession plan is to determine how the ownership and leadership of an organization will be successfully transferred to the next generation. It is reasonable to plan for a 10-year runway of planning and preparation – consider this the “green zone.” This allows sufficient time to:

  • Prepare the organization
  • Groom successors
  • Set expectations
  •  Communicate with transparency to all stakeholders
  • Draft and implement proper documentation and agreements
  • Address issues of valuation and structure
  • Determine how and when ownership and leadership will be transferred

This partial list makes it obvious that there is a lot of work to be done. If you wait until you only have a few years left, you are in the “red zone.” It is here that risks increase and unforeseen challenges can easily derail the process. It is much easier to slow down than it is to speed up. Get started early and allocate sufficient time so you avoid the temptation to rush things.

While the heavy lifting will almost always occur in the years leading up to the transfer of ownership and influence, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do in a business that is still a couple of decades away from an expected transition. Being prepared for an unexpected event (Death, Disability, etc.) is critical at any stage of an organization’s life cycle. This would include having a fully executed and appropriate shareholder’s agreement in place, identifying clear leadership in the event of an untimely death, and being certain that there is sufficient liquidity to support the needs of a spouse or family if a shareholder dies or is unable to continue working. Sudden event preparedness should never be neglected.

The organizational health of the business and relational health of the family is foundational to a successful transition. It is always appropriate to spend time and effort in these areas. Exposing children to the business as they grow up and providing them with a realistic but positive view of the company is very beneficial. Being explicit about family values and building respect for the family legacy builds strong connective tissue that is invaluable in any family business or business family. The importance of family unity and healthy relationships simply cannot be overstated; sweeping family conflict under the rug is a recipe for future conflict and is likely to be a challenge at the most inopportune time. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

When it comes to succession planning, there is always work to be done. It is advisable to take the long view, be intentional, and prepare for both the expected and unexpected.

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