Helpful Articles on Business Transition by Richard Geib

Inauguration Provides Lessons in Leadership Transition

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 or by telephone at (330) 260-7003.



Following the publication of my article on Leadership Transition, I received a call from the son of the owner of a member firm. This young man told me that his father not only refused to discuss the article, but also has rebuffed every inquiry into potential transition/ownership issues.

My caller’s situation and frustration are not uncommon. Most members of the industry know of eighty-plus year old funeral directors who maintain control of their companies while their sons/daughters and grandsons/granddaughters wait

in the wings. How ironic that the professionals who confront the frailty of life on a daily basis, who should inherently know that nothing lasts forever, seem convinced that their own managerial positions do not adhere to these tenets!

To resolve the young caller’s dilemma, I explained that he needed to understand what was driving his father’s behavior (the motivating force), and, then, to identify which of four basic reactions to that force his father displayed. With this knowledge, he would be able to proceed effectively.

The prime motivator: Fear

The unique challenges and requirements of successful funeral-directing create a personal environment which is difficult, if not downright frightening, to abandon.

The funeral director who holds tightly to the control of the organization very likely spent his/her life sacrificially. Sacrificing time with family, failing to pursue hobbies or cultivate friendships outside of the profession, he/she channeled all energies toward service. Ask most funeral directors to describe themselves, and their story will focus on their career--how they have cared for their community, nurtured their staff, endured personal sacrifices in their devotion to promoting and expanding the business. Funeral directors, especially males, seldom label themselves as husbands or fathers first. Their personal identity has come from funeral directing, their satisfaction from pleasing and serving the community and from developing and supporting a close-knit staff. Because most of the director’s time has been spent with the people whom he serves and the people with whom he works, he is understandably fearful of losing the camaraderie and the well-deserved accolades his service and success have earned.

Additionally, if the director has regularly created personal yardsticks by which success could be gauged, (ten more funerals a more good director on more more), how will success—or the worth of the director—be measured if the work- journey ends?

The Predicted Response: To Fight, To Flee, To Freeze, To Forever Defer

As my young caller began to understand his father’s fear, I urged him to consider whether his father was responding by fighting, running away, stopping dead in his tracks, or simply delaying. I proposed four examples for his consideration:

#1. Fight. This reaction to fear is exemplified by the director who rages at his staff on a regular basis. The director’s anger, stemming from the fear that nothing will fill the void the loss of power and control will leave, creates significant family infighting and contention. Though beginning at the top, the fighting eventually becomes endemic to the organization at all levels and creates an abusive or dysfunctional environment. Unchecked, it leads to the eventual destruction of the organization.

#2. Flee. Rather than face an issue, this director retreats to a safer activity where he does not have to face his fear. The cars need washed, this certificate needs run, these chairs need delivered... all safe reactions to a very fearful event. Many times, this director uses work as an excuse to walk away from major discussions—we label this director a workaholic.

#3. Freeze. This past Wednesday, I walked to my barn to feed the cats who reside there for mouse patrol. I opened the cupboard for their food and came face to face with the largest snarling raccoon I have ever encountered. What did I do? I froze on the spot! Time stood still. After what seemed like an hour, I tore out of the building at a speed far surpassing any quarter mile race I have ever entered! This freeze response is a natural reaction to danger. As a reaction to the fear of transition, it is revealed in the funeral director who spends hours alone in the office, who hides in the liquor bottles, who knows what needs to be done but never moves to do it. A numbness permeates both the director and the organization.

#4. Forever Defer. A variation of #3, this director also knows what needs to be done and appears to pursue a resolution; the task is never quite complete. Instead, days are filled with consultant after consultant--none of whom have the right answers; articles are read; superficial discussions occur; “lip service” is given to a possible plan of action; but, the actual transition is, forever, side-stepped. This is the funeral service operation that is “working” on transition when the owner dies—leaving the operation in disarray.

As my caller began to digest the information, I emphasized that his father’s behavior and attitude were not unusual. Confronting fear successfully is difficult, especially when it is shrouded with the cloak of anger or busyness, immobility or impotence.

When I made the decision to leave the active managerial role at my funeral home and transition my children into that position, I gave up my entire social network, the security I found in the experience of management, and my life story up to that point. I was unprepared for the fear which gripped me every day. But, going back to school to learn new skills (with students half my age!), I gained a far deeper respect for what we do in our profession, for the people we employ, for my family, and, most importantly, for myself.

Through Gestalt training, I understood the errors I had made, and saw how I could help others

avoid them. I learned that the future is not an individual journey, but a journey we co-create; for as the leaders of independent funeral homes, we are responsible not simply for our careers, but for the preservation of the multi-generational heritage of the organization we have led.

As our conversation drew to a close, I assured my caller that I was confident that successful transition would occur if he and his father were willing to be guided through two vital steps. Initially, they would both need to acknowledge the issues; then, they would need to begin directed, productive conversation to resolve them. Completing these steps would allow him to consider his father a mentor and advisor--not an adversary, and would empower his father to confidently move away from the presidential chair and stand, not fearing the future, but helping design it.

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 or by telephone at (330) 260-7003.