Your chosen successor has many wonderful strengths and experiences that he or she will bring to your business. But there’s one thing they lack: the depth and breadth of the relationships you have invested years building and maintaining. They will never be just like you in those relationships and they cannot start with the level of connections you have with your key vendors, customers and employees.
This is a huge concern for a lot of owners because they have been the company’s primary external relationship builders, especially with really significant accounts.
So how do you transition them?
You need to identify what is most valuable or important about your relationships with each of your external connections. Is it the ability to negotiate a win-win? An abiding commitment to shared risk? Or the ability to get to the right person at their company quickly to resolve an issue? If you know what is most valuable, you can set up a plan to pass that along to your successor or another appropriate person within your company.
If you are the company’s top salesperson, things get a little trickier. If your successor won’t be picking up the responsibility for sales, you’ll need to prepare your sales team to pick up the slack, and ensure that your successor is prepared to appropriately support key sales calls.
As you engage in these external meetings, insist on bringing your successor with you. If you are renegotiating a banking agreement or vendor agreement, establishing a new vendor/customer, or sitting down with your CPA for an annual business review, bring them along. Discuss your objectives in advance. Talk about the relationship dynamics, the history of the partnership, the areas you will be working on in that particular meeting.
By inviting them along, they learn so much about your priorities, the relationships you have, the way you handle the meetings, the issues, challenges and opportunities that exist. After each meeting, take time to do a focused debrief and coach them on what you were trying to accomplish and assess the effectiveness together. Use it not only to help them learn, but ask them for input, insight and ideas. They offer fresh perspective and will likely surprise you with new ways of thinking or partnering. Some of it will probably be very useful and directly applicable.
Look for opportunities to get your successor involved in annual events such as your year-end audit or regular tax filing too, so they don’t have to face it for the first time without you. Those internal systems that interact with external relationships are also important to plan for.
Over time, you will have to attend these meetings and be intimately involved in the systems less frequently, and your successor will be in a position to handle more and more.
For one of my clients, the board relationship was really important. The successor didn’t have much of a relationship with the board, which would be guiding and directing his work, but it was critical. They needed to be able to influence and support each other.
Our task was to establish the necessary credibility and rapport so they could call on each other as needed. We brought the successor in to the board meetings and gave him targeted responsibilities that increased over time. We then directed him to meet one-on-one with board members outside the meeting to learn how the board saw the company, its CEO, his role as successor and the risks and growth areas in the business. This all facilitated a deeper relationship. We also had him join the audit committee to penetrate that aspect of the business and work with several key board members in a small group setting.
You’re probably asking the age-old question now: My gosh, how long does this relationship transition take? Depending on the uniqueness, length and complexity of these relationships – as well as how comfortable you are with letting go – you can expect it to take from three to nine months to establish and it could be years before it’s fully in place at the level of the relationships you’ve built. Of course yours weren’t built in 6 months either!
While we’ve been focusing on the importance of transferring external relationships, don’t forget about facilitating the relationship transfer between your successor and the employees who get the work done day in and day out. People such as your administrative assistant, controller/CFO, operational team leaders and department heads, etc… will be invaluable in helping ease your transition and keep the company running smoothly.