Succession Planning: How Do We Plan for Our Exit?

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Dear BAM Mentor,

I keep hearing about succession planning and having an exit strategy… But when should I be thinking about this? How does it tie in with leadership development in my team?

~ Thinking Long-term

Dear Thinking,

Start the Beginning with the End in Mind

So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision—you’ll see it yet! Now that we’re on the right track, let’s stay on it. – Philippians 3:15-16 MSG

Every life experience has a beginning and an end. The multiple stages of parenting is a fairly accurate depiction of this truism. First-time parents know, even in those first days of newborn-nuzzling, they must one day release that child. The busyness of the initial parenting season blurs the reality of inevitable separation. When the eventual becomes the reality, the detachment process can be palpable. As painful as this process can be, if it doesn’t happen, the child will most likely never continue to develop into a fully productive, self-sufficient individual.

Similarly, one can view the life-cycle of a business and its founder in the same manner. For founders, the early stages require us to do just about everything. We build and test product, we market and sell, we provide customer service, we make coffee, we clean toilets, and we take on any and every unenviable task, if seen as advancing our vision. Our “new baby” is solely dependent on us. For some in this stage, we can’t even leave the “baby” for fear we will return to a mess at best, or a dangerous situation at worst. 

The problem with this scenario lies in our inability to see the dependence we have created on us being present. To begin to break the chains of this unhealthy consequence, you must mindfully prepare for your eventual exit. If you neglect this step, when the event does happen, it will be one of the most grievous and painful life seasons you will ever experience. Assess, re-assess, and ask others to truthfully assess, how they see the relationship between you and your business. You will either be facilitating or hindering company growth. Regularly, take a brief break in your routine to seek the Lord’s perspective. With His biblical wisdom guiding your mindset, ask the following questions:  

Am I building for exit, and if so, am I building for this company to survive my absence? 

If I am building for exit, am I building this company for profit, growth and sustainability?

How you answer those questions, and how you view yourself in the business, will lay the foundation for the type of people, programs and processes you eventually craft into your corporate infrastructure. 

Know who God created you to be: Maker or Life-Giver

I have filled him with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft. – Exodus 31:3

To understand and prepare for transition, you must be able to discern how your specific skills have been essential, as well as detrimental, to bringing the company to its current stage of operation. Are you a maker or a life-giver? Beginning with Exodus 26, God supplied Moses with very detailed instructions for creating the tabernacle. In Exodus 31, God provided the specific names of the skilled craftsmen (whom he prepared beforehand,) with the necessary skills to build and equip the tabernacle. These craftsmen were the “makers” (or “hardscapers”) needed to implement the plan. As “life-giver,” Moses brought together the resources, people, strategy and tactics (or the”softscape”) to breathe life into the vision.

My husband and I are in the process of selling our home of 16 years. This has been a very revealing process for us, as we take the necessary steps to complete the transaction. My husband – a “maker” – has had a difficult time preparing the house and landscape he created to give to someone else. It is his handiwork that he is transferring to a stranger; a person who will never appreciate the hours (in some cases years) of planning and design that went in to his “hardscape”. For me, as I survey and prepare to release what we built, the difficulty comes as I play back the many events and times of community that were created in this setting. In large part, I was the “life giver” behind the community formation here, I did the “softscape”. Yet, it has been through this process of detachment, that we finally grasped our very different skill-sets, and how the final result (a home not a house) was a coalescence of those skills.

When you do the “instant replay” that rewinds to the beginning of your company origin, do you have the ability to discern your true role in those early days? What unique skills do you possess, and did you engage to lay the foundation that brought your company to its current phase? Were you a maker or a life-giver? A hardscape or a softscape designer?

Healthy organizations should be viewed as those established on a clearly-defined, forward-moving trajectory. These companies germinate and grow from the founder’s well-articulated and communicated vision; a vision which every member of the tribe understands and champions. Built on that vision, are uncompromising and clearly lived core values and principles. These values and principles undergird structured, unambiguous organizational systems and processes. The net result is a well-oiled machine drivable by any skilled driver.

Take Every Opportunity to Learn, Take Every Opportunity to Teach

A wise warrior is better than a strong one, and a man of knowledge than one of strength; for you should wage war with sound guidance — victory comes with many counselors. –  Proverbs 24:5-6 HCSB

…From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked. Luke 12:48 NET

…some are going to give up on the faith and chase after demonic illusions put forth by professional liars. These liars have lied so well and for so long that they’ve lost their capacity for truth…Everything God created is good, and to be received with thanks…God’s Word and our prayers make every item in creation holy.  1 Timothy 4:1-5 MSG

The leadership principles that guide your decision-making and overall mindset should always originate from a biblical worldview. Do not forget all knowledge is God-breathed. It must be considered as useful, as we (and others) bring to light what needs to be known for advancing our vision. Wisdom is formed through the application and misapplication of knowledge. Our wrong thinking in how we interpret God’s word causes us to apply knowledge incorrectly. Only through the process of unlearning and relearning, making mistakes, and correcting course from those mistakes (and lots of His grace), do we begin to form the wisdom that is foundational to proper application of knowledge.

It is the re-framing of our understanding, that enable us to gain wisdom. You should be constantly equipping and growing your own leadership abilities, simultaneously doing the same for your leadership team. However, challenge yourself to think beyond that – view every employee as a potential leader in need of development. You don’t know the skills and aptitudes hidden deep within each person. These traits will only surface as opportunities are provided to uncover and develop them. 

Seek out and understand behavioral theories and best practices, particularly as it relates to human motivation and organizational development (any and all organization is built on the behavior sets and cooperative interplay of people.) TED talks and podcasts are a great place to begin. Begin with individuals like Daniel Pink, Carole Dweck, Brene Brown, Stan Christiansen, Tim Ferris (yes, I said Tim Ferris). Coaching for Leaders, Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders, Hidden Brain, and Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership podcasts offer useful tools for leadership development. Ask leaders you admire how they equip themselves for building, sustaining and eventually… exit.

Because our worldview shapes our business-view, make sure you are constantly filling your mind first with the truth of His complete Word (not scripture taken conveniently out of context). Make sure you fill your mind with the biblical wisdom (different from spiritual opinion) of his gifted teachers. My personal favorites are Ravi Zacharaias and Alistair Begg. In all this preparation remember, “there is nothing new under the sun.” The knowledge has always there; it just takes some longer than others to find it.

by Colleene Isaacs


Read another Response on this topic:

From Robert Andrews:

None of us will last forever. Every manager and every employee someday will move on, either to another job or another company or to retirement or to death. If Jesus returns shortly then the calculation is different, but it is a pretty good bet that no one will be in the same job 80 years from now.

Some people are pretty comfortable playing things as they come and responding to problems as they arise. Often that works. But it’s really a wiser move to have some plans in place, especially for key positions. If something unexpected happens to a key employee it’s not at all a sure thing that you will be able to find a replacement in a reasonable time. In our work we have seen expatriate managers suddenly blocked from entering the country or suddenly have a spouse announce he won’t live in the country any more. Kids get serious illnesses or require therapy that is not available locally. We have also seen national managers suddenly decide their family will be better off if they relocate to a wealthier or safer country. In most of the cases I can remember the decision was sudden and unexpected and the consequences were very hard for the company, sometimes fatal. [Read More…]

Colleene Isaacs is a regular Mentor on our panel. Meet the ‘Ask a BAM Mentor’ panel of mentors

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