The Business Transition Blog

Mentoring Your Successor

To succeed in your business, someone must succeed you.

As the owner of your business you have a unique opportunity to mentor others who will eventually take over your business. And who could possibly do it better? Who else knows the history, the ups and downs, the major breakthroughs, the battles won and lost, and the rationale for choosing that very interesting logo?

When you transition your business to enable you to slow down, or prepare it for sale, you’ll want to see your mark left on the business. It’s your baby and you want to be remembered for your personal contribution to its success. The corporate history book should tell your story.

To assure that continuity, you need to share that wisdom and lessons learned with someone you feel can continue the journey on your behalf. Once you’ve identified that individual, you can begin a process of mentorship that will provide a strong foundation for going forward.

You may find your chosen one to be a less than enthusiastic mentee; the proud son who believes he knows more than his ‘ancient’ father; the MBA graduate taking over from the founder with high school education; or the senior employee who has known for years that she could run the business better than the current owner — if only she had a chance. How do you pass on your wisdom without being considered an irrelevant old traditionalist stuck in the past? There are many stories in which the next generation, in an act of defiance and independence goes off on their own path, only to get their comeuppance in the end. Oddly, there’s something comforting in those stories for those of us on the north side of fifty.

It’s true that the younger generation will have ideas and methods that you would never consider but which have merit. And to give them credit, they will have learned things in those courses that could create efficiencies in your marketing, operations or finance departments. But if they are smart, they will also want to understand how the company evolved to where it is now. So make a point to acknowledge the value they bring to the business; their unique abilities and contributions that enable you to consider them for the honour of taking over the business. But if you have chosen your successor well, they should also acknowledge the wisdom that comes from real experience versus the pages of a case study.

Here are some suggestions for beginning a mentoring process with your mentee, if it hasn’t already been established, or to potentially enhance it if you have already begun:

· Be clear in your own objectives and expectations. How confident are you that you have chosen the right successor? If you are unsure, how will you test and measure her capabilities? You may wish to just observe for a while before taking her into your confidence and then establishing hurdles that need to be overcome in order to finally earn the role. What is your timeline? What are the stages that, once met, lead to the next level? Recognizing that she is not you and never will be, what is the measure of success? Once the measure is set, make sure it’s not a moving target that can never be attained. A good mentorship relationship is built on trust not misdirection.

· Be clear in your communications. Tell him that you believe that he has the potential to be the next leader and that you’d like to begin the process of developing him for the position. Give timelines. Set clear expectations. Assess his capabilities. What are his strengths and weaknesses? What development programs can be used to accentuate his strengths and minimize the impact of his weaknesses? In which areas can you be the best mentor and in which areas does he need help from others? Ask him what he feels are your strengths and areas in which he can learn from you. If he’s overlooked areas that you know you can help with, state them clearly and more importantly why they are important to the future success of the business.

· Make time for spontaneous mentoring as well as more regular meetings. Look for teachable moments and opportunities to use real-life lessons to drive home an important principle.

· Show him or her how to succeed. Accentuate the positive. Don’t set traps in order to create a teachable moment. Build trust. Be available. Like a grandparent, show unconditional positive regard. Be tough and stick to your standards. Expect the best and don’t settle for less. Marcus Aurelius said, “A man will rise to greatness if greatness is expected of him.”