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The Human Complexities of Succession Planning

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell
Since I do conflict for a living colleagues often share their stories with me. A few months ago over lunch with a CPA colleague she told me about some issues that were going on in her firm with senior partners retiring and the ensuing difficulties that she and other younger partners experienced taking over their mentors’ book of business. This month’s article is about succession planing and what can be done to make it go more smoothly.
“Succession planning” is one of those terms that reflects the rational and systematic approach many of  us hope to achieve in the business world or the public sector: an elegant solution to the fact that all of our collective endeavors must occur at the messy intersections of time, biology, and individual life paths. It’s a wonderful tool, but when the best and brightest start counting and timing and planning their way through the messiness, things can get lost along the way. What seemed like an elegant plan can begin to break down into tension and malfunction.

As Stephen A. Miles wrote in his Forbes series on succession, “Of course, having a succession plan is easy, and few companies…would acknowledge they lack one. The challenge is to have a plan adaptable to the dynamic nature of the succession process and the shifting demands on the CEO position. And as with any other sort of plan, the hard part is actually executing it.”
It’s a Puzzle
Miles points out that people can get caught up in the idea that succession is about one person, when really “… the best succession planning really involves a constant assembly and reassembly of a leadership puzzle with many pieces.” There are task-oriented and technical issues, but there are also emotional considerations and potential power struggles to take into account. We know that emotions, relations, and conflict can affect workplace productivity and success just as much as cognitive aptitude or rational coordination, and the same goes for succession planning. Transitioning someone out of the workplace means renegotiating all their workplace relations and rapport that contribute to that work – you need all hands on deck to help that happen smoothly, and emotional upsets can be disruptive.
Getting Workplace Relations Right
Relationships are a key part of succession in any organization, but it may be especially important for professionals who do client-based work. Anyone who has experience in fields such as financial advising knows that relationships are precious, valuable, complicated, and nuanced – they are a central foundation of the work. Yet according to Brian Heapps in Advisor Magazine these professionals often don’t plan enough for succession; they are too busy planning for their clients! But the process of transferring client relationships to younger associates or partners can be a minefield – and not just for the clients. A succession plan should prepare for these difficulties and be ready to accommodate them.
Retiring can be Rocky
It’s important to keep in mind that succession is not just a technical or logistical process: retirement is an emotional process which can contribute to the complexity of the transition. A partner may spend decades developing their client base, and it thus becomes a major part of his or her life. Moving away from that and handing off work is likely to be a difficult emotional process. In light of this, succession must be approached with a great deal of sensitivity and care to all the individuals involved.
So plan ahead in a way that will facilitate succession, but remember that when the time comes you must also be prepared to deal with the complexities that simply can’t be avoided.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.


Author: Ellen Kandell

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