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10 Tips to Succeed at Succession Planning

Succession planning is an important process that can provide a business owner peace of mind as they move toward retirement or a sale.

Succession planning is an important component of any business’s long-term strategy, yet it is often overlooked until it’s too late. Whether you’re at the helm of a family-owned enterprise or a corporate entity, the question of who will carry on your legacy looms large. From starting early and identifying potential successors, to involving stakeholders and ensuring legal soundness, we’ll explore 10 succession planning best practices that can help you lay the groundwork for a successful leadership or ownership transition.

A financial advisor can also be a valuable resource has you establish a succession plan for your business. Connect with a fiduciary advisor today.

What Is Succession Planning?

A retiring business owner congratulates the successor he chose to run the business.

Succession planning involves the preparation and execution of passing on the leadership and ownership of a company to a chosen successor or successors.

This process is fundamental to the long-term sustainability of a business and encompasses a range of activities from identifying potential successors – whether they’re family members, employees or external candidates – to honing their skills and knowledge so they can competently take over the leadership reins.

The goal of succession planning is to facilitate the continuation of the business, safeguard its value and avert any potential disruptions that may arise during the transition of power.

Why Succession Planning Is Important

Without a clear and actionable plan, businesses are subject to considerable risks, including leadership vacuums, loss of key company knowledge and financial instability, all of which can threaten the very survival of the company. Moreover, the absence of a succession plan could undermine confidence among employees, customers and suppliers.

This erosion of trust can lead to declining performance and financial instability. In the worst-case scenarios, the absence of a prepared and qualified successor could even lead to the forced liquidation of the business.

Despite these risks, succession planning doesn’t appear to be a clear priority, at least among family businesses.

A 2023 PwC survey of family businesses found that only 36% of family businesses in the U.S. have emergency/contingency procedures in place, while only 64% of respondents reported having a will.

These statistics underscore the vulnerability of businesses that neglect this critical aspect of long-term planning.

10 Tips for Succession Planning

A married couple agrees to purchase a business together.

Succession planning typically isn’t something that can be done in one sitting. It requires thoughtful consideration on the part of the business owners and/or leaders, as well as continual dialogue and communication among stakeholders.

Here are 10 succession planning best practices to help you navigate the process:

1. Start Early

Initiating succession planning well in advance is crucial. For instance, a family-owned business might start succession planning five to 10 years in advance, while a multinational corporation could have a decade-long leadership development track. The benefits of starting early are clear:

  • It allows for a thorough search for the perfect candidate
  • It provides ample time for leadership development
  • It reduces the risk of rushed decisions during transitions

2. Identify Potential Successors

A robust framework for identifying potential successors involves assessing leadership competencies and ensuring they align with the organizational vision and values. Encourage your team to consider what qualities would make someone the right fit for leadership in your company? Tools and software can help identify leadership competencies, offering an objective measure of a candidate’s suitability. This strategic alignment is vital for maintaining the continuity of the company’s culture and strategic direction.

3. Involve Key Stakeholders

The involvement of key stakeholders, such as board members, current leadership and sometimes key clients or partners, is essential. Engaging these stakeholders early and often ensures their buy-in and provides valuable insights. To facilitate engagement, consider organizing workshops or retreats that focus on the succession process.

4. Plan for Contingencies

What would happen if your chosen successor suddenly left the company or died suddenly? Contingency planning is a must for addressing such unforeseen circumstances. This section of your plan should include a checklist of common contingencies to consider, ensuring you’re prepared for any eventuality.

5. Develop Training Program and Foster Culture of Development

Cultivate an environment that encourages growth, development and internal promotion. This not only aids in succession planning but also enhances overall employee engagement and retention. Once potential successors are identified, implement a training program tailored to develop the specific skills and knowledge they will need. This could include leadership training, specific operational knowledge and strategic planning skills.

6. Plan for Knowledge Transfer

To ensure efficient knowledge transfer, use subheadings to organize strategies such as mentorship programs, cross-training and process documentation. Perhaps you set up an internal wiki page or use a knowledge management system? Such tools can greatly facilitate the transfer of knowledge within your organization.

7. Communicate Openly and Frequently

Creative communication strategies, like town hall meetings or suggestion boxes, can turn the task of communication into an engaging process. A brief case study or testimonial can highlight the importance of transparency in communication, showcasing how it builds trust within the organization.

8. Document Your Plan

The necessity for documentation is highlighted by cautionary tales of companies that failed due to a lack of proper planning. Clearly outline what you aim to achieve with your succession plan. This could include ensuring the business continues to operate smoothly, preserving the company culture, or maintaining family ownership. Knowing your end goals will guide the planning process.

9. Legal Scrutiny

An overview of common legal pitfalls can help you avoid costly mistakes and legal advice is important to navigate these complex areas. Ensure that your succession plan is legally sound by updating wills, reviewing contracts and ensuring compliance with any regulatory requirements.

10. Regular Review and Update

A succession plan is not a set-and-forget document. It should be reviewed and updated regularly to reflect changes in the business, personnel or the external environment. Remember, as your business evolves, so too should your succession plan.

Bottom Line

The key to successful succession planning lies in a proactive approach, structured development programs and adaptability to change. Remember to engage stakeholders, plan for contingencies and communicate effectively. And don’t forget, documenting your plan and adhering to legal standards are just as critical.

Financial Tips for Business Owners

  • If you’re thinking about selling your business, there’s a lot to consider. From valuing the enterprise to finding a right buyer and paying taxes on the profits from the sale, the process can be long and exhaustive. This comprehensive guide can help you with the sell of a business.
  • A financial advisor can offer you advice as you sell your business. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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