When Is the Best Time to Begin Succession Planning?

Several years ago I was stuck in a “I should have started sooner” situation.  After listening to my laments, a friend asked me a simple question that seemed completely unrelated to my challenge:  “When is the best time to plant an oak tree?”  he asked.  I shook my head and mumbled a colorful anglo-saxon metaphor.  So, he answered his own question.  “Twenty years ago, that’s the best time to plant an oak tree.  The second best time is today.”

Well, the same thing is true for most of us when it comes to succession planning.  Maybe we should have started twenty years ago; but, for whatever reason, we didn’t.  So, the second best time is today.  And that’s true whether you’re talking about succession in a publicly held company or in a privately held family business.  The key is to stop standing still and get moving.

That’s one of those easy to say yet hard to follow pieces of advice.  The reason, in most cases, is that most of just don’t know how to go about it.  Here are some suggestions that make it easier:

1.       Even though there is uncertainty after the current estate laws expire in 2012, recognize that doing nothing for the next 18 months is not a viable option.  No one will benefit and many people that you care about may be harmed.

2.       Find an advisor to guide you through this process.  Most of us, including many professionals in the field, have a limited understanding about the interdependent nature of succession planning and the interaction of personal and professional goals, family legacies, and business performance.  Above all, find someone whose primary agenda is based on knowing where you want to go and has access to resources and people who can help you get there.

3.       Succession planning builds a bridge across generations.  Later generations learn from their elders.  Sometimes what they learn is what not to do.  Are you prepared to be a negative example, or would you rather be a positive role model?  If you want to be a positive model, get the next generation involved at an appropriate level in understanding the family legacy first and the family business second.  The legacy may well outlive the business in its current state.

4.       Recognize that succession planning builds value.  Whether we’re talking about family relationships or business value, succession planning gives you a logical framework in which you can make what will almost certainly be emotional decisions.  Most of us are far more rationalizing than rational, so we need the comfort of knowing that we have followed a systematic path in reaching decisions.  Succession planning does that by taking you through a series of steps that deal with personal and professional interests, financial planning, business planning, successor identification and development, management performance, and family governance.

Maybe you should have started succession planning twenty years ago, but you didn’t.  You probably didn’t plant an oak tree either.   But that’s no reason not to start today.