All children face the challenge of succession. Those with financially successful parents who have created a business and/or financial legacy will find their path strewn with personal and professional challenges. Andrew Keyt’s experience of teaching and advising heirs has been supplemented by multiple interviews and intensive research. His new book is thought-provoking and will be of value for the parent, successor and advisor. Successors face two key questions:
• What do I want to do with my life?
• What role do I want to play in my family’s legacy?
The answers can guide a process of life-long development with successful succession the objective. Gaining personal and professional credibility, and becoming a differentiated leader are prerequisites.
Successors are born into a story already being told about their parents, their families and their business. Stories can become myths that are embellished, ignore negatives and lengthen the shadow from which the successor must emerge. And of course, there is a positive side to mythology; myths provide a sense of stability, illustrate values and culture, and can help guide behaviours in a complex system.
Not only must successors step out from the mythological shadow, but to be successful, they must find a way to leverage the past. Combining both manoeuvres is a significant achievement and requires great skill, incisive self-knowledge and determination – it’s not for everyone.
Keyt provides guidance on how to develop the necessary personal and professional qualities, inside and out. Descendants must build a strong sense of identity, establish credibility and create their own path to authentic leadership and success. They will need to shift both their own and external perceptions of themselves, and this takes time.
Successful inheritors will learn to tell the family tale in the context of themselves. They will do things differently; conflict is likely to result – and it is healthy. But in defining their own way forward, successors are likely to undergo a crisis of identity; during this time they are at risk of losing themselves in the midst of the predecessors’ myth.
How do successors change perceptions? They arm themselves with self-knowledge; “to lead with credibility, successors take the risk to lead only as they can”. Part of this process will involve unmasking the heroes of the past, both to acknowledge what they have achieved, but also recognise their fallibility. This does not mean demonising anyone but does require clear sight.
The successor can’t do it all alone. Parents can have a fundamental role if they are capable of giving the successor a true understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as acknowledging their achievements and failures. There is a middle road between ‘do this’ and ‘do anything’ that can guide a child toward a growing sense of individuality.
Developing a successor’s self-awareness is probably the most critical step of all. External input is most likely to have influence and facilitate feedback loops, professional coaching and other complementary approaches; all of which can provide critical support to what will inevitably be a lonely process. Being yourself, but being your most skilful self, only comes with unbiased stimulation and ascertained self-knowledge.
Gaining internal (or private) credibility through enhanced personal awareness needs to be complemented by external credibility, which “can’t be borrowed; it must be owned, and originates from the actions”. The clearest sign of external credibility is developing followers; “work (encompassing success and failure) reveals reality”.
Credibility brings confidence and self-awareness, all of which enable the successor to act as their true self. Authenticity is vital to a successor because if they are not authentic, it is unlikely that colleagues and advisers will be; “authenticity is more difficult for people around power”. Counsel, advice and feedback are therefore likely to be compromised around a leader who lacks authenticity.
How can the predecessors know what to encourage and when the time is right to start the succession process? Keyt provides a check-list which is also relevant to the aspiring successor:
• Are my successor’s skills increasing?
• Is my successor becoming technically capable?
• Is there a track record of success?
• Has my successor developed followers?
• Is my successor aware of personal blind spots?
• Is my successor being authentic, or is it pretence?
• Is my successor passionate about what he or she is doing?
• Is there objective data to support an increase in responsibility?
There is a strong belief amongst commentators that a future leader must acquire external professional experience. Keyt suggests that a driving passion can offset the limited potential for differentiation within a family business, through trying out multiple roles, gaining a further education such as an MBA, finding an external mentor or joining a professional network. If they are the right person, they will find the necessary tools. Critically, the development process must provide the space to fail, for therein lies learning.
The successor is likely to create a personal strategic plan; “being clear about one’s own values, mission and vision, lays the foundation for the successor to create a vision and strategy for the company, that aligns with the vision and values of the family”.
The long-term objective of achieving distinction and distance from the myth is a long process, requiring “an ongoing pursuit of truth, of learning from our true selves, bringing forth what is within us and giving it full expression… being okay with oneself in all the ways that he or she is different from others, especially the founder”.
We know these impressive leaders when we encounter them; people with a strong sense of self and loyalty to a legacy rather than an icon.
I am a successor myself. I wish I had read this book 25 years ago.