Last year, I profiled Ryan Turman of the Turman Group in a post-election call-to-action for the conscious business movement to broaden its embrace. At the time, Turman was heir to one of Virginia’s biggest logging companies, checking in at $120 million annually. This spring, I learned that he was no longer the Turman Group’s heir. Now, he’s the CEO.
In the 2017 article, I pointed out that even though the Turmans are white, Southern, Republican loggers, the conscious business community shouldn’t be too quick to judge. In fact, their company meets or exceeds many of the standards so core to socially-responsible business: inclusive hiring, employee ownership, long-term thinking, and sourcing recycled materials, to name a few. Now I propose we add another standard to the list: active succession planning.
Succession planning may not immediately come to mind when you think of the most important activities of innovative, forward-thinking conscious companies. It certainly isn’t as sexy as whole-body negotiating or dancing with the future, but I assure you that excelling through a major leadership transition—and thereby securing your company’s financial and impact-making future—is nearly impossible without a dedicated plan.
Obstacles to effective succession planning
Effective succession planning starts the day a new leader takes office and is a years-long effort to attract and cultivate future leaders. Too many businesses falter at this critical moment: Current leaders stay too long, and the business loses relevancy. Often, and not unrelated to the former point, there are no next-generation leaders waiting in the wings. Despite the clear argument for securing the future, several qualitative obstacles stand in the way of businesses creating a succession plan. Here’s where awakened leaders have a huge leg up.
Vulnerability: The first and most universal obstacle to real succession planning is accepting death. By recognizing that s/he will not lead the organization forever, a founder or CEO is ultimately acknowledging her or his own mortality. Mortality—the sweetest of gifts from Mother Nature that fuels the circle of life, relieves us of the pressure to be godly, and keeps us connected to our animate and inanimate brethren—is under attack by those who want to solve or eradicate it. Awakened leaders are brave enough to be vulnerable and show weakness, and by doing so re-legitimize the ultimate passing of the torch: dying.
Humility: On the road to death comes aging, another truth of life quite difficult to accept and another major obstacle to effective succession planning. As founders and CEOs age, the business world around them charges full steam ahead. Tirelessly and limitlessly pushing boundaries, technology births new digital divides in every generation that our brains are literally incapable of bridging. My great-grandmother jumped every time a phone rang, because she thought she might be electrocuted. My grandmother never used a computer because she couldn’t understand how it worked. My mother has monthly appointments at the Apple Genius Bar to learn how to use her smartphone, and now I avoid Facebook like the plague.
Technology, perhaps, may be the most accurate gauge of an appropriate leadership cycle (in fact, the hype cycle graph on this page could easily depict a leadership cycles as well). A current leader cannot predict what future problems will emerge, and similarly cannot predict what solutions will become available to address them. Awakened leaders are humble enough to understand that the future of their businesses rely on future problem-solvers, not themselves.
Detachment: A gift of the awakened aging process is personal power, without which founders and CEOs will grip tightly to control and dominance. Future leaders must be cultivated through trust, delegation, and respect. Current leaders must be impeccably strategic about which projects they are willing to teach and which are uncompromisable. Future leaders need a space to grow into that embraces failure and learning, without fear of retribution for perceived competition with current leadership. This is only truly possible when current leaders detach from their version of perfection and embrace an unknown, elegant solution that will come from someone else. With an unshakeable sense of personal power, founders and CEOs need not worry about threats to their organizational power. Instead they can welcome—even invite—challengers.
The conscious alternative
From these qualitative obstacles stem quantitative ones, to complicate matters. If a business leader isn’t willing to detach, embrace aging, or accept death, s/he is unlikely to dedicate the capital needed to attract and cultivate future leaders. Furthermore, s/he is likely to spend more money on outside advisors to help fill the skills gap as s/he moves further and further away from relevance, which could impact not only business model efficiency but also employee morale. If, on the other hand, s/he is willing to take these leaps toward awakened leadership—and believe me, they are not easy—s/he will position the company well for attracting funding and talent. Investors and lenders often request a written succession plan to demonstrate long-term viability, and future leaders want to know there is a pathway for professional growth.
I have been inspired most by leaders who pass the torch at the height of their careers. When they do, they have the capacity to usher the organization through a thoughtful CEO search—and they set an example in humility by publicly acknowledging that others are better equipped to lead. But perhaps most importantly, they demonstrate that rotation of leadership not only mitigates business risk through the simple, timeless concept of diversification, but it is also written into the fabric of America as a founding, bipartisan ideal.
Risa Blumlein has led and advised nonprofits for 14 years and is delighted to serve the Social Venture Network community as Finance Director. She volunteers with the Nonprofit Overhead Project, the SF Bicycle Coalition, and SOCAP, and serves on the finance committee of the SF Wholesale Produce Market. Risa enjoys writing on Evox and Medium as @TheEmoBiz, a question-asking blogger exploring the juicy and provocative intersection of emotion and business.