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Why Succession Planning Is Uncomfortable
October 4, 2010
Written By: Michelle Clark, Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, Russell and I had the opportunity to present our thoughts on succession planning as a keynote address to the clients of a large law firm.  We focused on not how to create a succession plan.  Rather, we looked at why many companies don’t address this critical piece of long range planning.

Consider that …

  • 67% of organizations do not currently have any formal succession planning process (Cutting Edge Information)
  • Only 24% of organizations are confident in their ability to staff leadership positions during the next five years (Watson-Wyatt)
  • Only 10% of family owned businesses survive transition to the third generation.

There are many apparently rational and understandable reasons companies give for having delayed succession planning (time, money, business needs tactical attention, and inability to find successors).  What we have learned over time is that underneath these explanations there are more complicated personal reasons. Succession planning requires difficult conversations and a depth of self-assessment that makes most of us uncomfortable.

In the businesses we’ve assisted, Russell and I have identified the five most common real obstacles:

  • Telling the truth. Succession planning requires thorough assessment and hard conversations about performance and potential with current employees.
  • Confronting your own truth.  Succession planning requires the organization’s leader to think about retirement, aging, and mortality.
  • Letting go. Developing next generation leaders requires that current leaders share power. This may require the leader to change life-long patterns.
  • Learning to coach: Grooming successors requires organizational leaders to be both boss and coach.
  • Founder syndrome. Many business founders have these characteristics that impede transition to the next generation: high overlap of personal identity and work, lack of outside interests, highly controlling of decisions, difficulty letting go, and can’t imagine life after leaving the business.

Why are these barriers? Each is a tough discussion or major change.  Many of them ask the leader to do the very opposite of what made him or her a successful leader.  Most of them are difficult for others to push the organization’s leadership to pay attention to if they resist. Let’s look at two examples where the conversation on the surface encounters barriers from the unspoken realities that are underneath the surface.

Scenario #1: Tell the truth

Have you ever worked in an organization that consistently avoided having the really hard conversations with employees and leaders? Many organizations give lip-service to accountability but don’t enact it consistently. If this organization begins succession planning and an assessment of internal talent:

On the surface

  • Meeting after meeting that is uncomfortable but yields little progress
  • Disagreement about how to measure performance
  • Many strong opinions about selecting the right process
  • People express being busy and this task is “too much”
  • A complicated process is created that still avoids really pinpointing performance accountability

Under the surface

  • One or more leaders in the process are the very people who should be the recipient of difficult feedback but it hasn’t occurred.
  • Lack of faith that the leaders who will need to give difficult feedback will actually give it.
  • Strong feelings about how uncomfortable it will be to begin giving difficult feedback.
  • Competence fears about ability to have difficult conversations.
  • Discomfort in imagining staff reaction to increased accountability. 

Scenario #2: Confronting your own truth

Succession discussions often occur as the current CEO ages. Most of us, including CEOs generally prefer not to think of the changes aging and mortality will have on our own lives.


On the surface

  • CEO may state his/her awareness of the need for building bench strength.
  • CEO may express skepticism regarding the readiness of next generation leaders and consistently identify problems with choices made by possible successors.
  • The leader may agree to begin to pull back, yet resist it by subtly retaining control.

Under the surface

  • The leader may have these thoughts or fears that are often unspoken barriers that stop the change occurring:
  • As I watch others my age that have retired, many of them have lost their mental quickness. I don’t want that to happen to me.
  • In my business I am respected and valued. I have no idea what I’d do in retirement that would bring this type of respect.
  • I don’t know if my relationship with my spouse will survive so much forced togetherness.

What business psychologists know is that when an organization is having a conversation on the surface but avoiding the real conversation that is below the surface, productive process rarely occurs. There are strategies to get around the barriers that we’ll address in a future blog, but for now ask yourself why your company doesn’t have a succession plan.  Is it really that you don’t have the time and resource to devote to it?  Or, are you getting in the way of planning for a future without you in it?


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