June 23, 2024

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So much entrepreneurial effort goes into starting and growing a business, yet one of the most overlooked issues is keeping it going beyond the founder. There are so many reasons it’s not the top thing on a founder’s priority list, and yet the saddest thing they’d never want to see is for all their years and decades of work to one day go down the drain.

Business succession planning is a process that ensures continuity beyond the founder’s work life. This is part of a strategic plan for any forward-thinking leader who wants their clients, customers and team members to continue to thrive beyond their working life.

Business succession planning (BSP) differs from business to business depending on their size and their goals. Small businesses often have limited resources and are family-owned, which often entails changing the ownership and not just the leadership. With family-owned businesses, you face more than simple financial and business decisions because of the close relationships at home. For larger organizations with more complex structures and diversified workforces, the approach is usually very formal, involving a board of directors to identify the right fit for future leadership teams.

BSP may be a complex topic and endeavor, with a long list of considerations to ensure the vision and long-term goals of the business remain forward-driven. Regardless, here are eight tips you should consider.

Related: How Successful Entrepreneurs Use Doubt to Drive Growth

1. Align your succession plan with your goals

Knowing where you want to be 10 or 20 years from now is just as crucial as planning how to achieve it now. This is to ensure your business is headed in the right direction, with or without you in the picture. Think about whether you want to retire easily, knowing you’ve passed on the responsibilities to a trusted family member or a long-term executive. Or maybe you want to look into a merger with someone already succeeding in your industry. These decisions don’t develop overnight, more so that they don’t ripen in the next couple of years. Hence, gradual planning and assessments along the way are essential. Your goals may change, and so will your succession plan.

2. Define clear ownership roles

A common hurdle in succession planning is answering the question, “Who gets the keys?” Only this time, it’s your business that’s at stake. You have to identify key people who have the potential to take over or be a part of the leadership once you decide to exit or, worse, pass away. Create a clear roadmap of how you want to develop the skills of these people to hit the ground running and how decisions could be made in your absence. However, ensure that you keep everyone on the same page about ownership roles to avoid internal conflicts so the transition — before and after — is smooth. This is especially critical in a family-owned business; the clearer your ownership plan, the more likely there will be peace in your family once the transition begins.

Related: The 4 Roles of Accountability Within Your Company

3. Value your business, protect your assets

One of the most crucial aspects of BSP is getting a crystal clear picture of your business’s value. This will guide you in strategizing the areas of estate planning or tax implications, as well as setting up potential buy-sell agreements. However, valuation is just the tip of the iceberg. You have to protect your assets and safeguard your intellectual property, which is the lifeblood of your business.

Additionally, make sure there’s enough financial backing during the transition to support you and your successor. Your successor likely doesn’t have the same level of financial resources as you do, and this is an issue to consider. Lastly, protecting your business relationships can greatly contribute to your success when future leaders take responsibility.

Related: 1 in 10 Leaders Say Succession Planning Is Not Worth the Time and Money It Costs — Here’s Why They’re Wrong.

4. Develop a comprehensive transition plan

Your company’s game plan for a successful leadership transition lies in a detailed ownership and management handover. This should cover operational, legal, and financial changes and should have much of the plan in writing. This documentation should also include a comprehensive guide on how to overcome potential roadblocks, how to make decisions, who has votes, and what the transition process looks like. This will ensure that your business remains stable and your legacy intact.

5. Encourage open communication

Everyone involved should be in the loop. Create a space for open dialogue talking about their aspirations, concerns, and reservations. Share your vision and your goals for the future of your company. This initiative should establish a sense of ownership and buy-in for the plan.

This way, you can reduce resistance and cultivate a more collaborative environment that will make the transition easier and smoother. This strategy doesn’t simply pass on information, but it helps create some engagement and helps them remain invested in your company’s future.

Related: How to Communicate More Authentically and Effectively

6. Seek expert advice

Naturally, you may want to do everything alone in this succession planning journey. After all, you started the company, and nobody knows it better than you. But remember that you can only do so much on your own. It’s tempting to do it all by yourself because you are more comfortable navigating and sharing confidential information. Still, you don’t want to go rogue dangling on monkey bars without safety nets. Consult BSP pros or build your A-team experts. These advisors can help you navigate financial intricacies and legal frameworks more efficiently, with greater attention to identifying relevant regulations and potential hurdles.

7. Execute with a clear plan

A blueprint — your comprehensive transition plan — is not yet everything. Think of a “launch countdown” where milestones are clearly articulated within a specific timeline. Having a clear plan with timelines encourages accountability and progress toward your end goal. Assign ownership of specific steps and ensure you thoroughly review them regularly as a leadership team until you’re confident that the transition will go smoothly.

8. Learn from successful examples

Many transitions and successions have succeeded in both small and large companies. Strive to learn by benchmarking your BSP with companies that have successfully executed theirs. For example, Microsoft transitioned from Gates to Ballmer. Ballmer has been with Microsoft for over two 20 years, which gives him an upper hand on the intricacies of the company’s processes and day-to-day operations. He was an internal talent who the company supported and helped grow, which made the transition less risky and successful. Talk with other entrepreneurial peers and discuss what they’re planning for their succession.

Effective business succession planning is not like writing your final chapter in the business book and closing the book, but more like preparing it for a sequel. While your approach will depend on the size and complexity of your business, proactive planning remains the core principle to ensure your vision doesn’t fade with your exit. This may be 20 years away for you or only a couple of years in the future. Either way, keep your approach light and flexible while taking the process seriously, and don’t hesitate to reach out to experts for additional guidance to ensure that your transition is smooth. By planning your exit as strategically as you led your entrance, you solidify your legacy and your business’s future.

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