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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Succession Can Cause an Identity Crisis

by Shel Horowitz

When Bonnie Brown first came to the Family Business Center almost three years ago, her talk focused on nuts and bolts of estate planning.

This June, in a return engagement, Brown had something more difficult to discuss: coping with the emotional impact of the transition.

"The senior generation is figuring out who they will be when they are no longer in control; the junior generation is figuring out who'll they'll be when they are in control-and how" they'll take over.

She encourages both current and future CEOs to analyze the present situation and their goals: "Where I am, where I'll be in five years, where I'll be in 10 years, this is why it will be great for the family and the business-and here's how I'm going to get there."

The hard part is going through the changes you'd like without hooking in on blame: to take responsibility for your own goals. Brown's suggested tool, borrowed from motivational speaker John Miller, is called The Question Behind The Question, or QBQ for short. A QBQ "transforms your thinking-from victim to leader."

Every QBQ contains three essential parts. Each one:

  1. Begins with What or How
  2. Contains an I statement: the subject is not we, you, they, or them, but I.
  3. Has a focus on Action.

Thus, by stating a QBQ, the questioner takes responsibility to move forward toward the goal.

For example, if you're feeling frustrated that productivity is low, resist the urge to blame your employees or to bring up their past mistakes. Rather, ask: "How can I become a more effective manager and boost productivity?"

Also, use QBQs to move discussion forward in negotiation. In Brown's words, "When someone gives you vague garbage or controlling puppetry, come back with an I-question that has action." For instance, if the current CEO tells the next generation that s/he's not ready to give input on an important deal, the younger manager can ask, "How can I prove to you that I understand the decision process?"

One weapon for younger managers: get the older generation to assign you onto a SWOT Analysis Team: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. Says Brown, "It shows seniors what juniors really know [about the business]. Seniors are always pleasantly surprised how much juniors know (and how well they often work together)."

That confidence in their successors, along with a personal financial security plan that is not tied to the fortunes of the business-as well as an analysis of the dangers to the family and business of keeping the older generation in power too long-can often persuade even the most recalcitrant CEO to pass on the reins.

Outsiders can aid this process, in several capacities. Brown believes firmly in using an outside board-particularly for the compensation committee. Outsiders are also useful in conducting a "360° evaluation," where every executive gives feedback-in confidence-about all the others. The outsider then aggregates the feedback and gives it to each recipient-but those who made the comments are anonymous, and thus protected.

Outsiders in contact with a young CEO-to-be, in settings such as community service or external training, will build legitimacy for the coming transfer by observing and working with the future leader. They'll gain confidence, while the company will also benefit as the young executive not only gains skills and contacts, but also shares the lessons learned. Brown sees both internal and community bridge-building as essential, and recommends including it in job descriptions.

Finally, Brown urged the group to be prepared for the unexpected: have contingency plans for such stresses as: the sudden death or disability of key executives (family and non-family); an unforeseen decision to sell the company; siblings competing for the top role.

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