One often-unexpected reason that a succession grinds to a halt: Founder fear.
Fear is not usually an emotion associated with Founders. If anything, the opposite is the norm. We view Founders as inherently fearless. And this is true. As entrepreneurs, they exhibit great courage and take great risks. Founders ignore the naysayers. They are willing to launch products early and pivot to achieve perfection later. They are action-oriented when others would pause, afraid of failure. They will bet it all – both literally and figuratively. We had one client who gambled the fledgling company payroll on roulette in Las Vegas – and won! Confidence and fearlessness seem to go hand-in-hand as Founders are determined to manifest their vision.
But something happens to many Founders when the succession process begins. They start to worry that everything they have worked so hard to build – everything they risked so much to achieve – will slip away. That’s when the new emotion of fear creeps in. It can crowd out the familiar bravado. And it can interfere with a smart succession process, paralyzing a company in a nether-space of uncertain leadership.
The key to resolving the Fear/Fearless polarity is understanding what succession means to a Founder. While it’s a business process for most everyone involved, for a Founder succession, it is deeply personal. It is the evolution and transformation of a dream.
A conversational blueprint for Founders and succession
Because the issue of succession is so personal, it demands a personal approach. To that end, Egon Zehnder has developed a guide for Founders and succession teams. It is not a checklist, but a conversational blueprint that helps to unlock and support Founder curiosity, establish a connection between the Founder and the succession process, and tap into the confidence and fearlessness that made the enterprise what it is.
Questions 1-4 reach out for the core emotions the Founder experienced creating and build the company.
1. Why were you motivated to build this company?
2. What are you most proud of as an entrepreneur and why?
3. What matters most to you about this company?
4. What is precious about the culture?
Question 5 names the elephant in the room – the emotion so in contrast with the Founder’s reputation.
5. What are you most afraid of with the transition?
Then, 6-10 surface a shared vision for the Founder’s next step.
6. What does success look like under the new leader?
7. How do you envision being involved in the future?
8. What specifically do you hope will be your legacy?
9. What are you looking forward to doing beyond the company?
10. How can I best help you achieve your vision and mission?
This is hardly a one-hour conversation. It goes deep and it may take time for the Founder to move through the memories and emotions the questions evoke. But it is crucial ground work.
Succession is an important crossroads for a Founder. That individual, even post-succession, will likely remain involved as a member of the Board. Acknowledging the polarity of the Founder experience will bring next steps into focus. Exploring the emotional underpinnings now, and making them part of the succession process, will help to build a positive, fearless future for the company.