by Jan Breiner Frazier, managing member, Planning Plus, LLC

Beginnings are exciting, stimulating, and often exhilarating. Endings are functional, inevitable, and sad.

No words are truer than these when thinking about retirement and succession planning. As a 30-plus year consultant, I have advised a number of CEOs, including owners and founders, to begin thinking about succession planning — not only for them but for their key leadership staff and longevity of their organization. In fact, this is a critical discussion topic that generally emanates from strategic planning. And, on more than one occasion, this advice proved valuable to the company when the key leader unexpectedly was out of the picture.

For the past few years, there has been a sea change occurring in the non-profit community as founders, and long-term CEOs and executive directors are thinking about, planning for, or have already followed through on retirement. Many of those who rose to the occasion of providing “human” services in such areas of healthcare, housing, food insecurity, mental health, domestic violence, etc. to those needing a helping hand were children of the 60’s who wanted to make the world a better place. Many of them did. But, as with all human endeavors, it becomes time to take a rest and turn it over to the next generation.

This article, however, is not about the need for succession planning. Rather, this writing is geared to those who are handing over the reins — and it is much harder than it sounds. I can attest to that.

During my consulting tenure, I have gathered a body of knowledge used to guide, lead and often direct organizations towards success. For the last few years, I have been transferring much of that knowledge to my partners so they can continue the organization into the future, or as long as they want (it helps that they love what we do). As a professional, I know that what I do, I do very well. But as a founder, I know that I need to be open to new ideas of what we do, how we do it, and for whom. At some point, I have to let go to allow my protégés the freedom to experience their own successes, challenges and, yes, sometimes failures. That is the only way to grow.

If I have done my job well, they will be fine. Just as parents must trust they have created a solid foundation for their children to succeed, so it is with business leaders. Yet the human condition is such that it is often difficult to manage such a transition.

As I look at a five-year plan, these are the steps I recommend (and am trying to follow):

  1. Provide opportunities for professional development in other areas than your primary business. Ensure the next generation is well versed not only in your industry, but in higher level thinking and strategizing opportunities. My two partners have enrolled in multiple programs to increase their skill sets (and obtain several certifications) as well as find new ways of looking at things.
  2. Avoid being the “final” say on proposals and project methodologies. Make sure others know the critical pieces but allow for their own language, tone, and approach to working with clients.
  3. Become more of a mentor than a boss. Rather than explaining how they should proceed, ask the critical questions about why they have chosen a particular path.
  4. Identify (and stick to) the role you will play over the next year, two years, etc. It is exceedingly difficult for staff when you float in and out of the business — one day hands off, the next day micro-managing.
  5. Remain open to their ideas of operations, approach, and implementation, while at the same time ensure they are up to speed on all financial and legal requirements of the organization.

To some, this article may seem like “of course” simple concepts, and you may already be going down this path. But for those of you thinking about winding down over the next few years — and those of you who are ready to take up the mantle — it would be an interesting conversation to have to determine how well you are managing an impending transition.

What does staff need from you? How can you provide guidance instead of management? And, most importantly, what legacy do you want to leave?