“Passing on the Baton” My Quiet Thoughts on Succession

For the last couple of weeks, I have had the pleasure of teaching a motley lot of bright-eyed, eager minds – those fresh out of University, middle-aged business-men, musicians, public sector employees, farmers and wise old men fulfilling a long held ambition to be lawyers.

Last week, in my Law Practice Management class at the Ghana School of Law, one of the students asked a seemingly mundane question that got me thinking again about the hows, whys and wherefores of succession planning. The question: why do many law firms in Ghana die with their founders?

This question took me back to the day David, our Senior Partner discussed his decision to have me take over from him as Managing Partner. As if  to sabotage myself, I asked him if he was sure of the decision he was contemplating,  I told him I was too young, I regaled him with examples of the times that I hadn’t gotten things right. My panic was palpable. I wasn’t sure if my feet were large enough to fit his humongous shoes.

Without the drama with which I expressed my hesitation, David responded assuringly “you can do it. I will be here to guide you”. In that instant, it dawned on me that I wasn’t suddenly expected to become David; it was an opportunity to apply my learning over the years, to begin a journey of growth to becoming a higher level leader, the way only I, Isabel could, but with continued guidance from someone who had been down that path.

Looking back, it was also a strategic decision by David to ensure that others other than himself could run the firm and build its capability beyond him as the founder.

Experiencing succession planning

It’s been nearly 5 years since that September afternoon discussion and I see crystal clear now, without the film of self-doubt, apprehension or fear that plagued me then, that indeed succession planning can be scary. It is scary for the person stepping into a new bigger role like I was and perhaps emotionally trying for the founder, but it is the only way to ground and enhance your business’ prospects, longevity and legacy.

Legendary Jack Welch, former CEO of GE for years is often quoted as saying “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, it is about growing others”. However, in my journey as Managing Partner so far, it has been as much about growing myself as a leader as it has been about developing others and I would argue that is what succession planning entails.

There are undeniably great benefits of succession planning to an organization; talent development and retention, a new generation of leaders, cultural transformation, business continuity, longevity and an organization that will overlive its founders. So why don’t more businesses do succession planning and when they do, why don’t these plans work?

There are myriad reasons why people do not pursue success planning, the common ones being a founder who is overly attached to the firm, shortsightedness, poor strategy, and procrastination and sometimes fear.  African businesses tend to be noted for the propensity to want all- a 100% of 1 instead of a more viable 1% of a 100,000.

Proactively planning succession

I couldn’t agree more with all the above factors but, I believe that succession planning is at its core about building capable leaders at all levels of an organization not simply the next chain of command so that it can continue to live up to its full potential during the tenure of the founders and beyond.

Such an approach would provide the flexibility that the organization needs to build a steady pipeline of talent that can step into key leadership roles including the top job when the need arises or as a pre-emptive move to take the organization to the next level.

Observing what has happened to businesses that faded away and my own experience at AB & David, I note that beyond policies, systems and structures which are important for a successful succession, poor leadership and followership can easily unravel any attempts at planning succession effectively.

There are no perfect leaders but there can be great leaders who forge their leadership day by day, putting their best foot forward, minimizing the impact of their weaknesses and building a team around them with the essential attributes and strengths the business needs now and in the foreseeable future to excel.

Leading “exposes” you. Each day as leaders, we are put to the test, we manifest our strengths and our limitations. Leaders who can’t articulate their vision and inspire their people cannot guarantee that their best people will stick around long enough to provide the next line of leadership.

Building a succession culture

Succession planning is critical and those who do it tend to keep it in the boardrooms and at leadership tables. But an organization’s ethos on succession ought to be evident not only in its culture and strategy but on its everyday practice of leadership.

Leaders must understand that the leadership they provide must not only grow the organization, but fuel the self-actualization of their people in terms of what motivates them- financially, emotionally and their purpose in the world. It’s a tall order and exits are inevitable even if an organization were paradise itself.

Leaders must learn to engage with their people and ensure that those with leadership potential are actively groomed and enjoy the best employee experience and growth possible.

How else might an organization promote and build a succession culture?

  • Leadership development

Building leadership into structures and policies is helpful but cannot replace a deliberate ongoing initiative to develop people in a way that matches strategic needs and builds succession planning for all key roles.

With an active approach to developing leaders, people will know the exact skills they need to rise to higher levels and the firm can be grown from within, into one that is several times as powerful as what exists now.

As they say, leadership is everything, everything else is effect. The good news is that leadership can be learnt and leaders can be developed. It takes the will, a plan and a commitment to making it happen, to create a business that a founder can be proud of but which she or he does not have to run forever.

  • Followership affirmation

People view followership as a lack of vision, a sign of weakness, an admission of mediocrity. Nothing could be farther than the truth because very often learning to lead includes learning to follow too. Followership is a part of leadership. Learning when and how to follow can be the best classroom for becoming a great leader.

Leaders must celebrate their followers and followers must be secure enough in their potential to bide their time until their “unveiling”. I expect to be challenged on this as biding one’s time is not the language of this generation, particularly millennials who are in most instances in my view unfairly stereotyped.

Being in a hurry to be at the top fuels the need for great people in an organization to venture out on their own. Sometimes such people succeed but very often many end up with small firms which are a pale shadow of the mega organizations that they could have built together with the founders.

  • Opportunity mobility

An organization cannot create positions at will but it should find ways to regularly create leadership opportunities so that high potential employees are not always living in the shadow of others. Leaders must recognize that where there is a lack of opportunities, people stall and the organization loses momentum too.

Attractive professional opportunities and a clear succession path are important for sending the right signals to staff about their security and potential advancement. Even a fat paycheck is no longer a guarantee that your best people will stay with you.

The desire for greatness, for wealth, for leaving a personal legacy is a desire and ambition that cuts across generational and cultural boundaries. Any founder and his leadership team ignore this at the organization’s peril.

Finally, I would stress that robust succession planning is the pathway to creating the mega businesses that Africa desperately needs. Let’s do it better.

Written By Isabel Boaten, AB & David -Ghana

Managing Partner

AB & David, Ghana