As I watched our 44th president being sworn in to office this past January, I was struck by the contrast between the orderly transition of power within our national government, and the chaotic, even destructive change in leadership within our own independent businesses. How ironic, that a national government is capable of enacting sweeping administrative changes in an apparently seamless manner; yet an independent business - one like yours or mine--seems incapable of installing a new CEO without destroying relationships, reputations, and sometimes the business, itself.
What lessons can we learn from our government’s transition process, and how can those lessons be applied in the business arena to create a more positive, rewarding experience with succession?
First, an effective transition is mandated by pre-existing rules. From his first day in office, the President of the United States knows that in either four or eight years, he will be moving on. Recognizing the time constraints under which he is functioning enables him to confidently move forward with his agenda while purposefully planning for his own “post- presidential” future.
The lesson, here, is that we must create a time-line for transition in our own organization. During the first year of my involvement with our family-owned business, my father and I determined the date when I would become owner/manager of the firm. Being acquainted with and/or participating in five generations of ownership transition, he knew that setting and working toward an established goal was the best, and possibly only, assurance that
our relationship and our organization would survive. On that pre-established date, May 2, 1992-- my father’s 65th birthday-- I became, as planned, the sole stockholder and owner of the firm.
Second, an effective transition requires team effort. When November election results are finalized, the president-elect, the vice-president elect, and all incoming legislators do not rely upon themselves for all the answers. They meet with their predecessors, consult with experts, and work with constituents and staff to gain as much information as possible before the transition occurs.
For the businessman, this translates into a three-part lesson!
1. Share your plan. As your transition date nears, be sure to let the staff know what is planned. Anticipating an orderly transition, they will have the opportunity to plan accordingly. Long-time employees may consider retirement; younger staff may look forward to possible career advancement.
2. Seek advice. Business issues surrounding family, power, control, money, health (the list goes on!) have a way of coming to the fore during a transition. Admit that you don’t have all the answers, and be willing to consult with financial advisors, succession planners, and other experts. Incorporate their advice into strategic plans for your business and for yourself. And, don’t fail accept input from your own staff; research shows that in all businesses, the people delivering the service often have a better understanding of problems within the organization (and clearer ideas on correcting them) than top management!
3. Maintain a close working relationship with your chosen successor. Be willing to share as much information as possible, and as the time of transition draws near, to step back
4. from making key decisions. The decisions he/she makes may not be the same as yours, or made in the same way; but, you have hand-picked your successor, be confident that you have chosen well.
Third, an effective transition is replete with ceremony! The record crowds gathered in Washington, DC, on Inauguration Day, were joined by hundreds more viewing events on television or via the internet. The Peoples and governments around the world recognized the inauguration as a major event primarily because of the ceremony surrounding it.
This lesson for funeral directors is, simply, that we need to practice what we preach! It is our profession to DO ceremony. We stress to our families the value of ceremony in life transition; yet, when a change in leadership occurs in our own organization, we do absolutely nothing.
We need to inform our community that we are making a change worthy of celebration! A formal dinner covered by the newspaper, announcements on the radio or television, small ads introducing the new leadership, will all keep our name in front of the community, confirm that the transition will be orderly, and dispel any lingering doubts among the community (or our staff) that some sort of coup is taking place!
Fourth and finally, in an effective transition, the out-going chief executive willingly relinquishes the reins. Former President Bush met amicably with the incoming president prior to the inauguration ceremony then headed for Texas. When reporters followed and pressed for a comment, he was brief. “Today is not about me,” Bush responded. “Today is a historical day for our nation and people." His acknowledgment that the baton had been passed confirmed that questions were to be directed to and responses coming from the man who was now in control.
This fourth lesson, admittedly the most difficult, reminds me of advice I received more than 30 years ago when I became president of our local Rotary club. The immediate past- president pulled me aside. “Always remember,” he said, “from the ranks you have come and to the ranks you will return.” That idea kept me grounded in my experience with Rotary as well as in my role as president, and now past-president, of my own business organization.
We all know that any position of executive leadership is but a temporary trust; but that knowledge is often difficult to admit--especially to ourselves. These four lessons from a cold January day in our nation’s capitol, offer legitimate ideas for taking control of the inevitable transitions that lay before us. The lessons remind us of the importance of starting the necessary conversations, heeding the advice of our consultants, developing an exit strategy, and--as we enjoy an advantage over most of our Washington, DC, counterparts--designating our own successor! When the wind of change begins to blow, as it surely will, we need to be riding the current, not struggling against it. If we have assumed the leadership role in the transition process and applied the lessons, we can even gauge the timing and strength of the wind.
Richard Geib II is chairman, and past-president of the Geib Funeral Homes, Crematories and Remembrance Centers in New Philadelphia and Dover, Ohio. Geib presently assists key business operators in perfecting short and long term business strategies. Share feedback or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at (330) 260-7003.