Shel Silverstein writes children’s books.  In one called The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, he covers the role of succession development with a simplicity and singleness of purpose.  For our purposes, the Big O is access to the legendary corner office; and the missing piece is the person who sits in that office after you are finished with it.

But, before there can be successor development, there must be a successor identification program in place.  That successor could be a family member, a key manager, or a partner.  Regardless of which, the person chosen must also be a leader.

On a national, governmental level, the U. S. American people go through this process every four years.   Sometimes the chosen successor gets to serve for four years; and sometimes for eight.  But sooner or later, a successor identification program kicks in, and people begin talking about who’s going to be next in line.

How can you develop something like a primary system within your own organization?  You probably already have something like that in place, you just haven’t thought of it in those terms.  Here are some suggestions for identifying potential successors and testing them in a primary process.

  1. Identify the key behavioral characteristics and level of business knowledge required by your successor.  Be very specific about what you want in terms of leadership skills.  Leadership involves the use of power and influence to produce results.  There are variables in how people wield power (positional and personal) and how effectively they can influence – or, if you prefer, motivate – others. 
  2. Lock on to the notion that non-family employees may be better suited to lead the business than family members.  One of our clients has not had a family member as President since the founder stepped down 18 years ago, even though the founder’s three sons are all actively engaged in the business.
  3. Provide opportunities in business meetings, vendor meetings, planning sessions, and family councils for potential successors to demonstrate their leadership and business skill sets.  Look for indications that show whether others follow them willingly or maliciously. 
  4. “Vet” the candidates thoroughly with respect to owner motivation and perspective.  In The Godfather I, Michael Corleone was always going to have the family go completely legitimate within the next five years.  Along the way, he left more than a few dead bodies.  While your successors probably wouldn’t go to that extreme, there are all kinds of ways to kill people and their spirits.
  5. Only settle for what and whom you want in the corner office.  I’m not speaking of whom as a specific individual manager, partner, or family member, but as someone who gets your vision of where the business can go and how you want it to get there.  That individual may or may not be a family member.

Once you have found a successor, it is crucial to coach and lead them.

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