Many people have been told about “snipe hunts” or have experienced “wild goose chases.”   There’s a funny thing about those two expressions.  There really are wild geese; and snipes really do exist, but they are hard to find in the real world.  

Looking for the perfect succession candidate is much like the proverbial wild goose chase or the “hazing induced” snipe hunt.  In some cases, the perfect candidate just doesn’t exist, either within the family or within your traditional circle of candidates.  

So, how do you go about picking successors who will add value to the business?  Expert opinions can be confusing and, sometimes, contradicting.  Here are some steps that others have found helpful in their search process.

First, start your search by identifying someone who would be anywhere from above average to superior in terms of culture and performance fit.  That’s especially important if you consider yourself to be the embodiment of the perfect candidate.   Face it, not even a daughter or son, niece or nephew, will be another you.  Having seen leadership and ownership transitions over the last 40 years, I can guarantee you that your successor will have different skill sets and different leadership habits and characteristics than you.  And the odds of a successor being ready on “day one” are heavily stacked against you and the successor.  

Next, recognize that your successor may lead the company for a few decades before another transition occurs.  No doubt business circumstances have changed during your tenure; and there is every reason that the circumstances will change again for the next generation of leaders.  New competitors, new markets, new products.  That means flexibility and adaptability will be important considerations for your successor.  Include those characteristics in “A List” of must have skills.

Third, if you’re in a family business, concentrate your search on finding an heir with balance, focus, discipline, and flexibility as prerequisites for consideration as heir in waiting.  Not even the British monarchy still thinks of birth order the primary consideration for succession to the throne.

Fourth, for positions that will be filled by non-family members, rely heavily on employee referrals, internal postings, networking, and electronic advertisements as your primary means of pulling people into your recruiting system.  If you are not getting referrals from your employees, you (or your management team) are doing something wrong.  

Fifth, expect the search to take some time and require some effort, especially for those positions not filled by family members.  At one point in my career, I did quite a bit of recruiting.  In order to have a pool of three finalists for one position, I found I needed nine semi-finalists.  That meant I needed 27 quarter-finalists.  And that meant I needed a pool of about 81 people to draw from.  

Sixth, follow the lead of some of the top employers in the country.  According to the Great Place to Work Institute, organizations that use creative recruiting practices then to hire better (not perfect!) candidates that those that do not.  Here are some examples:

  •  Direct Mail to a targeted list of potential recruits;

  •  Digital content that showcases your business and describes your culture;

  •  Skype; and,

  •  Advertise by posting job ads online where people spend most of their time.

You see recruiting really is like a snipe hunt.  If you want to find one of those marsh-dwelling birds, you better go to the marsh!

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