Success in Succession Planning

Posted on 24th November, 2011

Most agency owners are aware of the compelling benefits of recruiting and developing senior successors, not least an efficient and well-compensated ‘exit’ post-sale. But actually achieving a smooth handover is very rare – as has been brought into sharp focus for me recently.


Two years ago, I was asked to re-energise a great but by then very tired business, Corporate Edge. That process is now complete, and last month I handed control to the person who until recently was my number two. For staff and clients, it makes perfect sense, and they have been kind enough to say so. But I have been struck by people’s surprise that this handover is both amicable and planned.


One client told us she had never had an outgoing and incoming agency leader attend a handover meeting together, let alone seen them smiling and laughing throughout. This is a rather depressing indictment of a sector that has everything to gain from getting succession planning right.


To some extent, it’s a product of the domination of ‘player-managers’ in the agency world, those technicians whose egos have little regard for the turmoil through which they are about to force their staff. But mainly it’s because agency heads don’t plan.


So how do you get it right? There are three key factors: 


1. Choose early, choose well. The sooner you start, the longer you have to ensure you, your successor, your clients and staff feel comfortable. Crucially, select the chosen individual well before you’re in danger of losing your energy, drive and passion for the business. Too often, successors risk learning from tired leaders of yesteryear. And be sure not to recruit a ‘mini-me’. It’s a common trap but if you’re now in a position to move on, the agency probably needs someone with slightly different skills. 


2. Take your time. By the time you go, your successor should be champing at the bit, having been exposed to increasing amounts of your workload, relationships and responsibilities. A typical timeframe is around 12 months, but you can do things faster if you are as inclusive as possible from the outset.


3. Let go. It’s not enough to recruit and install your successor; you need to empower him or her, too. This means trusting the person, and keeping a very low profile. You need to be on hand should your successor want to speak but, for both internal and external credibility, keep out of his/her way. This means accepting he/she will make changes and want to do things a bit differently from you. Not only is that just fine, it’s also appropriate: it’s what shows there is real value in the business beyond you.


This is manifestly not rocket science. Au contraire, it's child's play. When I explained to my 6 year-old son that I was handing the agency over to my number two, he simply asked:-


'Is that the man who used to look after things when we went on holiday?'


You've got it, George, you've got it. 


This piece was initially published in Inside Investor Relations.

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