Transitioning to the Next Generation of Leadership in Family Businesses

Family businesses are faced with a number of unique challenges and succession planning is no exception. Conversations around the next generation of leadership are inherently more complicated and emotional due to family dynamics, individual expectations, and financial concerns. What’s more, leaders tend to underestimate the amount of time the succession process takes. When surveyed, many indicated they thought the succession planning process would take two years or less, while experts suggest it is more likely to be five or even ten years for some companies[1]. So what can these organizations do to more successfully navigate this transition in leadership?

How to Start the Family Business Succession Planning Process?

1. Have a Candid Conversation About the Future of the Company

A lot of uncertainty and confusion can arise from the assumptions that when family dynamics mix with business operations. As such, the first step to developing a robust succession plan for your family business should be to sit down and have a candid conversation with family members. It’s important to have a clear sense of who would like to be a part of the organization, and who would not.

It is also important that everyone have a mutual understanding of the core values and vision of the organization. Working with family is rarely easy, and some degree of conflict is bound to arise. A core set of values that everyone agrees on can help guide you through these challenges. Remember that any decision your company makes should be in support of its values and mission. That way, even if there are disagreements in style and process, all family members will be working in the same direction towards shared goals.

2. Put a Talent Development Plan in Place

Once you have a sense of who is interested in taking on a critical role within the business, it can be helpful to provide some structure around a path for onboarding into the organization. This process can help to clarify the expectations for each family member who joins the company. Some companies find success having family members work at multiple levels within the organization before taking on a more senior role. This can mean working in an entry-level position while in high school and taking time to learn about a variety of departments. This approach helps young family members to learn about the organization from the ground up – knowledge and experiences that can be incredibly valuable when making important decisions as a senior executive.

Another important option to consider is whether or not you will require family members to get experience elsewhere before joining your team at a senior level. There are many valuable experiences to gain from working in another organization. For family members, it provides them an opportunity to build a professional reputation on their own, without relying on family connections. This can help to boost confidence in one’s own abilities. For the organization more broadly, having key team members gain experience elsewhere helps to bring a diversity of perspectives to your leadership team.

3. Formalize the Succession Process

Having a talent development plan in place for onboarding family members into the organization is important, but it is not sufficient for ensuring a successful transition of power from one generation to the next. Adding structure and accountability to this plan by having a formal Succession Plan in place is key. A formal Succession Plan allows you to track the progress of individual family members throughout the organization, but perhaps more importantly, it communicates your plan for the future across the organization.

One of the biggest mistakes family businesses can make when planning for the future is setting the expectations that senior positions will continue to be filled by family members. To avoid alienating employees, these positions should always be earned – there should never be the sense that family members are guaranteed an inherited role. Having a Succession Plan in place which takes into account non-family members is essential for attracting and retaining high-quality employees. Bringing in an external succession planning consultant to help with the development of your Succession Plan is a great way to add some objectivity to this process, thereby increasing the perceptions of fairness around how you make personnel decisions.

4. Respect the Transition of Power

The last step in handing over control to the next generation is respecting the process. This means taking a step back when necessary, and letting the new leadership take over. It can be difficult for some to let go of an organization where they have spent most their career, or perhaps even built from the ground up. If you have followed the steps of a formal Succession Plan, and spent the past several years gradually making this transition, you can leave confident that your successor has the skills and expertise necessary to move the organization into this next phase.

How SIGMA Can Help

At SIGMA, we offer customized Succession Planning solutions to meet the unique needs of our clients. Contact us to learn more about how your company can get started today with our Succession Planning Launch Series.


[1] “How to start your family business succession planning” (n.d). Retrieved from https://www.bdc.ca/en/articles-tools/change-ownership/plan-succession/pages/family-business-succession-overcoming-barriers.aspx