Succession planning is akin to changing the car’s wheels while it’s hurtling down a highway at 100 miles an hour. The next generation needs to be brought up to speed, but business doesn’t stop because there’s a transition. Patriarchs need to be confident that if they’re going to hand over the keys to the kingdom, new leaders need to have what it takes to maintain momentum.
There isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to effective succession planning of a family business. Understanding the ecosystem is key to aiding families in implementing a plan that fits their particular context. While business growth and sustainability are essential, the biggest concern expressed by patriarchs and matriarchs is avoiding unnecessary conflict that could tear a family apart.
Transitioning a business from one generation to the next is no small task. Dips, setbacks and anxious moments are to be expected (PKA, 2018).
Before passing the baton, patriarchs need a sense of confidence that what they have built will be both sustained and grown. Adopting a strategic approach to developing the next generation provides peace of mind.
The holistic development of next-generation leaders is a multi-faceted process. Baring the current and future needs of the business in mind, patriarchs work with the next generation to identify and implement a viable development path. A snapshot of the development gap and potential routes to closing that gap can be captured by asking questions like:
- Where are our next generation leaders today?
- Where do they need to be tomorrow so that they are ready for the role?
- How do we create opportunities to get them where they need to be?
The journey will be different for each family member, depending on where those development gaps are. While building technical knowledge and competence are often the key focus of development programs, mentoring is also an integral part of equipping the leaders with success tools.
Sponsorship vs Leadership
While there may be a slight overlap in sponsors’ and mentors’ roles, there are some distinct differences. An example of a sponsor would be someone with significant influence in the organization who can assist the person they sponsor to obtain a desired leadership position. Essentially, sponsors pull you through the system.
A mentor is a seasoned professional working with someone looking for or requiring development. The mentor could also be an influential person in the organization. The mentorship relationship dynamic is built on sharing insights gained through experience to help the mentee think through challenging matters. Mentoring is a strategic intervention where expertise and perspective (McWilliams, 2020) are leveraged to provide a rich and participative development experience for both parties.
A mentoring relationship thrives when there is mutual respect. Both parties need to be invested, and the junior person should be confident that the seasoned professional has their best interests in mind. Part of being an effective mentor means prioritizing one’s availability. The junior person may need to talk through difficulties in the day, or they may be about to go into a meeting and want to run their intended approach past their mentor.
Nuances of Mentorship in a family vs non-family businesses
While the mechanics of mentorship may vary in different organizational types, ultimately the success or failure of the process depends on how invested the participants are.
In a non-family business, mentorship tends to be more formal and structured. It may also be slightly easier when there isn’t a longstanding personal relationship between participants. Professional relationships are clearly defined, without the complication of awkward conversations over family dinners. Times of engagement are typically more structured or program driven, and outcomes are closely monitored in a more formal fashion. Does this mean that a formal approach to mentorship is more effective than then an informal structure? Not necessarily.
In a family business, mentorship happens more informally and organically. Conversations take place on a daily basis that, when consciously analyzed, are founded in mentorship principles. While this can contribute to growth, the main benefit of introducing more structure or formalizing the mentorship process is that it acts as a valuable reference point for development. Observing and documenting the growth process can be very encouraging for both parties, and serve as further inspiration for greater achievement and growth.
Considerations for mentors and mentees
Experience in the industry or company is a foundational trait a mentor should have, along with an equally high level of care and honesty. Sometimes, as mentors observe certain behaviours, they need to be willing to give the tough message. Not everyone is willing to do that. The caring straight talk of an invested mentor may be the reality check a mentee needs to make much needed change for the good of the organization. By being that ‘listening ear’ and establishing accountability, a great mentor can help the mentee grow in their sense of belonging, which makes a big difference. (Fessell, Chopra and Saint, 2020)
When mentoring the next generation leaders in a family business, patriarchs need to be aware of their own potentially dormant resistance to change. Through the mentoring process, mentees may start behaving differently and moving in the desired direction. This can ironically prompt feelings of discontent from patriarchs, despite their previous enthusiasm or support. Change on all fronts can be a challenge, but ultimately, for the good of the family and the organization
The most important consideration for a mentee is that they be ready to be mentored. When the process is forced on them, they are bound to be reluctant and disengaged. If they really want to be there, then it’s a very different conversation.
PKA. 2018. How To Transition Your Business To The Next Generation | PKA. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 November 2020].
Kennedy, L. and Pulvermacher, G., 2020. Succession Planning – Building Business Legacy While Maintaining Family Relationships | PKA. [online] PKA. Available at: [Accessed 24 November 2020].
Fessell, D., Chopra, V. and Saint, S., 2020. Mentoring During A Crisis. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: < [Accessed 24 November 2020].
McWilliams, A., 2020. Find The Mentorship You Need (Not Just What You Want). [online] Psychology Today. Available at: < [Accessed 24 November 2020].