The Changing of the Guard: Rules for Successful Succession Planning in Business

By Al Weatherhead

I remember going to work six years ago at Weatherchem, my plastic caps and closures company. Before going to my office I walked around the factory floor to say hello. John, an employee, stopped me on my rounds.

“Mr. Weatherhead,” he asked. “Is it true you’re retiring?”

“Not retiring,” I replied. “However I will be bringing in a new executive team so that I can transition out of the day-to-day management.”

John looked worried. “Will we be all right? Will our jobs be safe? What’s going to happen when you’re gone? What’s going to change at Weatherchem? Will you still be around to guide us?”

I was brought almost to tears by John’s deep faith in me, his concern for the company, and of course, for his own personal wellbeing as a Weatherchem employee. I responded to him candidly and with respectful humility.

“I don’t yet know what the future executive management team will look like. My sense is that all will come out safely. There will be some transient upset but it will pass, our ship will stay on course and we will move forward as we always have. I promise that I will share what I can with everyone as soon as I have more answers…”

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Continuing to my office, I took some measure of comfort that when an employee was worried to this degree it indicated the keen faith and passion that abides throughout Weatherchem. However, I also knew that mere talk and platitudes were insufficient. Honesty and an open door policy are the best reassurances that a company’s leaders can give to distraught and worried family members, partners, stockholders and employees, when the time invariably comes for a changing of the guard.

In my book, The Power of Adversity, I recount how I harnessed the adversity in my life – wrenching family estrangement, devastating alcoholism, terrible arthritis and serious heart disease – to empower me to achieve unimagined success. Today I am healthy, and happily married to the woman of my dreams; a proud father and grandfather; the founder of a multi-million dollar company, and a thoughtful philanthropist. I have no doubt that I’ve achieved everything in my life not despite of adversity, but because of it. Indeed, I now know that:

Adversity is all powerful – it either creates misery or destroys it.

Adversity will always hurt – it is up to us to transform that hurt into limitless freedom and positive transformation.

Adversity is the bridge that can carry us to our future – it will take us to where we can live fully, bravely, and meaningfully in the world.

In this article I’ll share with you how I transformed my last great professional adversity: recruiting the next generation of executives to lead my company.

There’s no question that succession planning is a gut-wrenching affair. To confront it, you must also confront your own mortality by changing your mindset to visualize the day when you will no longer be around. To help myself through the process, I utilized Four Rules that I share with you to help you succeed in your own succession planning:


Change Once, Change Right

‘Mulligans’ may be tolerable in golf, but not in succession planning. Nothing is more demoralizing for your employees than to endure your false starts in putting in place a new executive team. The turmoil created by such fruitless change is equally disturbing and doubt creating for your customers or clients.

As you put in place your fledgling leadership team, you will inevitably initially question the wisdom of your choices. (I know I did, six years ago, when I chose a new executive leadership team for Weatherchem.)

Resist the temptation to go back to the drawing board. I personally came close to firing my new team during the first two years of the transition. But I wisely decided to trust my initial assessments that led me to hire these people instead of starting over – and likely experiencing similar “buyer’s remorse” down the road. I’m glad I struggled through my “breaking in” period to become comfortable with my new leadership team.

So how do you help yourself to make the correct executive personnel choices out of the gate? One crucial metric should be that the candidate truly desires to join your company. In my experience, a talented, qualified individual’s genuine desire to be a part of your organization will turn out to be a better fit than the candidate with specific experience in your industry, but who is motivated by the desire to go wherever he or she perceives the grass is greener.


Chips Off the Old Block Can Be Splinters

Your new management team must be comprised of committed individuals with the skills to foster the corporate culture that you’ve established. However, that doesn’t mean you have to find or hire the “mirror image” of yourself. Your primary metric should not be to find new leaders that remind you of yourself when you were younger.

Instead, keep an open mind as you look for people who are self-motivated, ambitious, and who will never be satisfied merely being “part of an organization” – not when they can run your organization!

How do you find such people? Many use executive search firms, but I had good luck relying on word of mouth. If you go to a search firm, you’ll spend a day or so spelling out the qualifications, qualities and attributes you’re looking for, and a good search firm will eventually find people who fit that profile. But can any search firm know you well enough to find you candidates who are truly compatible?

I believe it is better to get recommendations from trusted colleagues and friends who know you, and what makes you tick. (This is how I found Weatherchem’s new president, six years ago.)

However you decide to search for new talent, keep in mind that you’re not necessarily looking for a clone. You have no idea what the future will bring, so look for individuals with the diverse viewpoints and skill sets to lead your company into the brave new world after you’re no longer on the scene.


Dialog Not Dictate

Your business is a living, breathing, growing thing, and so should be your relationship with your new management team. You know best the heartbeat of your company, and if you hire executive talent who share the rhythms of that heartbeat, they will enthusiastically and successfully lead your company – if you allow them do so!

Let your new team have the time and space to take root; to let them realize their own great successes and small failures as they learn for themselves the practical business lessons that you once had to learn.

Give your new team free rein to explore (under your benevolent watchfulness) even the seemingly dumbest ideas. One of two things will happen. Either they will surprise and delight you by persuading you that their notions are sound, or your patience will be rewarded as your questioning and prodding guides them to realize for themselves that their proposed course of action is ill-advised.

Bottom line: let your new team have the time and space to take root; to let them realize their own great successes and small failures as they learn for themselves the practical business lessons that you once had to learn. It’s my bet that your new team will take far less time than you took to master those lessons!


Adversity is Intrinsic to the Process

Succession planning is never going to be easy or altogether pleasant. Tension, conflict, fear, emotional hurt – in short, all the hallmarks of adversity – will be with you every step of the way. But like it or not, change is coming. Get moving right away to confront it. It’s essential that you stop dithering by pretending to be choosing among your many alternatives and begin doing. Doing calms the mind because any action is better than no action at all.

Sadly, many people become mesmerized or frightened by the multitude of choices available to them. They believe they are “thinking before they leap.” But they are really procrastinating – dithering, as I’ve said. Adversity loves it when you’re dithering. Like a dog, it instinctively senses uncertainty and knows that an equivocal master is no master at all.

Personally, I’ve never considered myself a philosophical thinker. By virtue of my personality and my education, I’m a pragmatist who is wired to get things done. Accordingly, it’s my belief that too much thinking can actually get in the way of solving your problems and mastering your adversity – especially if the problem before you is succession planning. Remember, the sooner you begin to address the complexities of your changing of the guard, the longer you’ll have to be around to help the transition go smoothly for your business.

Another key is to gain strength from the hardship aspects of the transition process. (This also holds true for every problem we face: we must change how we view our adversities by reprogramming our mental and emotional responses to life’s myriad challenges and pitfalls. I discuss how to do this in great detail in my book, The Power of Adversity.)

Whether you are a managing partner, company CEO, or the owner of a mom and pop business… no matter if your search for new executive leadership spans the globe or is confined to your own company or your own family… successful succession planning is within your grasp when you use my rules to harness the power of adversity in your search for creative solutions.

About the Author                                    

Al Weatherhead is the author of The Power Of Adversity and chairman and CEO of Weatherchem, a private manufacturer of plastic closures for food, spice, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products.

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