Family Business Succession – A Simple Getting Started Guide

You’ve spent your life building and running a successful business, and now you’re ready to pass it on. You’ve identified your successor – your precious offspring. Great! Now what?

There are many steps between here and your end goal of passing your baby to your babies (the next generation), and a well-executed transition takes several years from start to finish. Here is a list of initial considerations to use as a starting point. If you can answer the questions below, you’re on the right track to creating a successful multi-generational family enterprise.

STEP 1: IDENTIFY AND PREPARE YOUR SUCCESSOR

  • Is your identified successor prepared to take over?
    • Do they understand the job responsibilities, and how every department functions?
    • Do they monitor and understand trends in your industry?
    • Do they have the requisite skills and knowledge to do a good job?
  • Most importantly, do they have good leadership skills? Do they have the temperament to lead your employees into “battle” and inspire them?
    • Do non-family employees see them as a visionary and a leader, or the children they once were?
  • Are they emotionally mature?
  • Do they share your vision and are they prepared to add their own vision to the mix?
  • If there is more than one successor, how well do they work and make business decisions together? Getting along as siblings does not assure they will also be supportive and cooperative business partners.
  • What about the rest of your family/children? If they don’t work in the business, are they expecting shares in the business as part of an inheritance?
    • What is your definition of fairness in the way you transfer your estate to your heirs?
  • How will all affected parties make decisions together during the transition?

STEP 2: PREPARE A SUCCESSION TIMELINE

  • Do you have a transition plan and timeline?
  • How many years until you retire or phase out of the business?
  • What will that phase out look like for you? In his book, The Hero’s Farewell: What Happens When CEOs Retire, author Jeffrey Sonnenfeld introduced four archetypes or styles that describe how family business leaders exit their positions. The first two–the Monarch and the General—are forced out but try to regain their lost power. The second two—the Ambassador and the Governor—leave their leadership positions in the company of their own choice and move on psychologically as well. The Ambassador stays on, working behind the scenes to help the company succeed, while the Governor pursues other interests.
  • How will you transition ownership of the firm, and what tax, legal, and financial considerations need to be made?
  • Has your legal team drawn up an operating agreement and sale agreement to facilitate a seamless transition? Yes, this is an important and necessary step even for (nay, especially for) families!
  • Are there specific steps or responsibility waypoints in place for your successor?
    • How will you objectively measure their success?

STEP 3: PREPARE THE FIRM

This is one of the most commonly forgotten steps!

  • Is the firm prepared for what is to come? Once you feel confident in your successor and your timeline, it’s imperative that you inform your employees as soon as possible.
    • First, they’re smarter than we often give credit for, and they see your child working in the business and they also know your age.
    • Maintain loyalty by being transparent about your plans, and help them understand your vision and embrace your successor. If they don’t, consider why this is occurring and take steps to help them see your successor as capable, fair, an ambassador for the employees, a winning rainmaker, and desirable successor to you.
    • Help them understand their roles in the transition, that their job is safe, and what they need to do in order to progress personally in the company in the years ahead.
  • It’s also vital to prepare your firm’s clients and important vendors and suppliers.

STEP 4: PREPARE YOUR FAMILY

Your family includes your other heirs, your spouse, other family owners, and non-employee family members.

  • How is your family affected by your decision to transfer ownership to this particular successor, from both a personal and financial perspective?
  • Many owners find the transition to emeritus status extremely challenging, and often feel as if they are being put out to pasture.
    • What will you do with your time, and how will you find fulfillment?
    • What, if any, part will you play in the business post transition?
  • Are there family members who will remain owners, but don’t work in the business?
    • If so, how will ownership decisions about the business be made, and how much authority do non-working owners have?
    • What about family members who work in the business, but aren’t owners?

If you can’t answer all these questions, don’t worry, you’re not alone! We recommend starting at the top and working your way down the list. Don’t forget, there are experts nearby who can help. If you get stuck, please reach out to our team of family business advisors – there’s no need to suffer in silence!

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