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Moving to the 'next up' CEO in a family business requires trust and transparency

Preparation for this transition should begin long before the first day.

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There is perhaps no more crucial, complex and challenging time in a family business than the succession from one generation of leadership to the next. The sustainability and growth of the company are on the line. 

The transition of a next-gen CEO is something that must be done right. But it’s not easy. The challenges are many. 

Family businesses must ensure that the new leader is competent and confident but also make necessary changes to adapt to the constantly evolving business landscape while simultaneously honoring the legacy of the past CEO and the family's heritage. It’s no small task. 

The importance of competence and confidence

Being perceived as competent and confident (and of course, actually being competent and confident) is paramount for the next generation CEO in a family business. 

For the transition and the company to be successful, employees and stakeholders must have faith in the leader's ability to steer the company successfully. Otherwise, the new CEO will never get off the launch pad, and the company will suffer. 

This perception is not just about technical skills. It’s about emotional intelligence and leadership qualities. Confidence inspires trust, which is the cornerstone of any successful transition.

Embracing change and tradition

One of the biggest challenges that the incoming CEO will face is the need to strike a balance between change and tradition. While change is often essential for a company's survival and growth, it's equally important to respect the legacy of the past CEO and the family's history in the business. 

In my experience, this tug of war between the founder generation and the next generation is most often the sticking point in disagreements on how to proceed. But as the saying goes, "what got you here won't get you there." Change isn’t just desirable, it’s necessary.  Considering factors such as the current economic environment; the challenge of attracting, training and retaining employees; adapting to hybrid working models; addressing an aging workforce; and staying competitive in the market are all reasons that change is inevitable. 

So, what’s the best way, considering the factors detailed above, to make a successful transition to a next-gen CEO? In my experience as a family business consultant, there are a few steps I believe are necessary to ensure a smooth transition of the next generation into the CEO role. Drawing on my experience and some inspiration from the insights provided in Michael D. Watkins' book "The First 90 Days" and Carolyn Dewar's article "Starting Strong: Making Your CEO Transition a Catalyst for Renewal" in the McKinsey Quarterly, here are five steps for a successful transition:

1. Establish your brand early.

Preparation for the CEO role should begin long before the actual transition. It's crucial for the new CEO to assess their current “brand” within the company and how he or she is perceived by employees — especially those who have watched the new CEO "grow up" within the business. Gaining the respect and loyalty of long-term employees is a significant factor in a successful transition. Incoming CEOs must build their brand by demonstrating competence, integrity and a commitment to the company's values.

2. Connect with your stakeholders.

Listening to a wide range of perspectives is essential for a CEO to understand the challenges the family business may face. The incoming CEO should engage in conversations with stakeholders, both internal and external, to gather insights and gain a comprehensive understanding of the business's current state and future opportunities. 

3. Allow for transparent two-way communication.

Effective communication is the cornerstone of a successful CEO transition. New CEOs must create an atmosphere of openness and transparency where feedback is both valued and encouraged. It's essential to view feedback as a means of improving the organization — not a personal attack. The new CEO should share their thoughts and vision openly with the leadership team to foster a collaborative environment.

4. Ask critical questions.

New CEOs must ask themselves critical questions about both their role and the business's needs. Questions like, "How do I best serve the company?" "What does the business need from me to succeed?" and "How do I get the team to engage in a shared vision?" are essential for guiding the actions of the next generation CEO. The focus is on the company's success not personal ambitions.

5. Fearlessly address the need for change.

The new CEO cannot allow the family business to remain stuck in the past — he or she must embrace the need for change and innovation. The key question to address is, "How can I preserve my family business legacy while addressing the critical business issues to ensure sustainability and future success?" This requires a forward-thinking mindset and a willingness to adapt to new market realities, technologies and customer expectations.

Successfully transitioning the next generation into a CEO role in a family business is a complex and multifaceted endeavor. It requires a delicate balance between tradition and change, competence and confidence. A family business can navigate this transition effectively and ensure the continued growth and prosperity of their companies for generations to come. You just have to know what to do, then put in the work. 



Denise Federer

Denise Federer is a contributing columnist to the Business Observer. She is the founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group with more than 30 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at [email protected].

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