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Family Business: Stepping Out of Your Predecessor’s Shadow

At one point or another, many small businesses experience a transition in leadership. Typically, a family member or other close associate takes over the company’s reins after years of apprenticeship. This transition is usually the culmination of a succession plan that outlines the original, or previous, owner’s intent for the future leadership of the company.

However, even with a well-thought-out succession plan, a successor may sometimes find it difficult to assert his or her vision of the company’s future to existing employees. Suddenly, the successor, who likely has a good understanding of the products and services offered by the business, must delve into new territory—sole responsibility for the operations and management of the business. If you have recently found yourself assuming control of a closely held business, or if you anticipate taking the reins in the future, here are some suggestions that can help you “get out of the starting blocks” quickly:

Gain Support of Other Owners at the Start. If you expect your predecessor or other owners to continue to wield influence after you take control, obtain their support for your business plan at the outset. Agreeing on goals now will help provide a solid basis for your future operating decisions.

Hire for the Future. Let the business’s long-term interests guide your hiring decisions. Once you have determined your vision for the company, as well as your business strategy, hire managers that best fit your future plans.

Develop Your Own Management Style. Assemble a compatible team that supports your management style and can help you move toward your goals more effectively. Choose managers who will challenge you. Managers who voice their opinions may prompt new and innovative ideas and strategies that may benefit your company.

Act Now with Confidence. Even if you have a controlling interest in the company, you may feel like a junior partner when surrounded by veteran employees. Don’t let this intimidate you. Hesitating now could eventually inhibit your company’s growth. Be proactive instead of reactive. Once you know the action you need to take, move forward. The sooner you assume a leadership role, the quicker your confidence (and that of those around you) will build.

Treat Past Contributors with Respect. Be careful about making drastic moves such as replacing the entire management team at once. Experienced members can be valuable resources as you chart your future course. However, you may have to face the hard fact that some managers no longer possess the necessary qualities, skills, and know-how to propel the company into the future. If this is the case, treat them with dignity and respect. Appreciate their energy and wisdom by relying on them as mentors. If you must replace some managers, generous severance packages can allow them to leave the company with recognition for their past contributions.

Mentor Your Staff. If you’ve benefited from being mentored by your predecessor and his or her managers, continue the tradition. In addition to creating a qualified peer group, mentoring can also help you develop protégés in whom you have confidence and who may ultimately become candidates for your management team.

Accept Your Mistakes. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you make a poor decision. Mistakes happen. It’s better to take action to correct a problem than to avoid taking action because you fear making a mistake. Running a company means making a multitude of decisions, and this inevitably involves making a few mistakes. The trick is to learn from them and move on.

Putting your own stamp on a small business can be a challenging experience. While your predecessor may have shown great confidence in you, you probably still have a lot to learn. Following these tips will help you sprint to the forefront and shine as the new successor.