As a consultant and family council chair, I have heard many times the senior generation’s mantra: “We are just waiting for the next generation to step up.” There is a problem with this attitude toward succession. Often, there is no room for the next generation to step up because what the senior generation is doing today isn’t a relevant role for a next generation family member. If the younger generation steps up, there has to be room for them at the top of the ladder.
One of the biggest challenges families face is developing successors to the current leaders, and creating meaningful opportunities for the successors to actually lead the family and the business.
To use my family as an example, the next generation was wrestling with succession and transition. We heard the senior generation’s step up mantra countless times. This was frustrating for the next generation, since many of the next-gens were actively trying to figure out what the senior generation meant by “step up”. The next gens were at the meetings, they were doing work, they volunteered for any assignment that was offered, but there was still the perception that the next gens hadn’t stepped up.
It wasn’t until the family took a drastic step that the step up conversation stopped.
In order to create successors that have something real to do, the older generation really needs to step back. They need to step away and provide opportunities for the next generation to step in to real work.
Stepping back means looking at the broader scope of what the family and next generation are trying to accomplish over the next ten years, and then tasking that next generation with the work that needs to be done to get there.
Some families who are stuck in a holding pattern have taken a drastic step that allowed them to move forward. An example of this is having the older generation agree to suspend the family council for a year. Then the next generation reformulates the family council to be more relevant to their generation and the rest of the family. This gives younger people real work to do to move the family forward. This also has the added benefit of learning how to work together as a next generation, build a governance model that is relevant for the complexities of the family and business today, and get beyond the powerful and influential voices in the senior generation.
The next generation might surprise you. They may be more successful than the older generation at creating a family governance model that’s relevant for the whole the family. For example, if the younger generation is asked to put together a task force to accomplish a specific goal, they’re unlikely to only appoint people within their own generation. They’re likely to ask the older generation to participate, and the task force will approach its work with the goal of helping the next generation and the family move forward.
The problem occurs when the older generation is trying to create successors in their own image, to replace themselves. You’re not handing over a job only to replace like for like. The younger generation is valuable precisely because they’re different, because they present an opportunity to help the family move forward. As the younger generation finds their path and their unique contributions, they will also find a way to carry the family along with them.