Rayner Reckons

Mar 14

What the fire brigade taught me about succession plans

Posted on Tuesday, March 14, 2017

In the last few weeks I’ve been through an experience that has altered my view of succession plans.  I’ll be honest and say that until recently, succession planning was something I didn’t think would directly impact on me.  I think I really felt it was something that was important for farm families and businesses rather than in my own life.

However just recently, the vital importance of a succession plan for all businesses and organizations was bought home to me.  In my involvement with the fire brigade, we have seen our Captain retire after some 40 years in that role. Almost at the same time our senior Deputy Captain retired on medical grounds.

These departures have had a profound change on the make up, and the atmosphere amongst the crew.  The question of succession had never truly been openly discussed.  While we knew retirements were coming, there was no clear plan as to how leadership would be handed over.

There were a lot of assumptions. A big assumption was I might have been appointed to lead the team.  I know I made that assumption.  There were assumptions that other long serving members would then be appointed to the deputy positions.

When it came down to it, none of those assumptions played out at all!  It turned out not everyone shared the general assumptions.  Other members wanted their opportunity to use their skills, or to strive for more responsibility.  And that is not necessarily a bad thing!  Opportunities do come and its important to grab the chance when it appears.

However this process highlighted some real issues that I reckon exist in any organsiation, business or family.  The first is that assumptions can’t be relied on.  You have no idea what could be around the corner for you or any one else!

Secondly, I’ve learnt we all have different motivations and desires.  Just because groups of people all work together, it doesn’t mean they all want the same thing.  If you don’t know what your family members, your partners or even the staff within your business want for their future, you could suddenly find your comfortable assumptions are completely wrong.

I found myself wrong footed in this experience.  My assumptions about succession and my role in the organsiation were completely wrong.  I also discovered that people had different motivations and expectations about their positions and the contributions they wanted to make to my own. 

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  But I wish now I had of known that before embarking on a process that ended up being, quite frankly, suprising, disappointing and painful!

I’ve also wondered about when do we actually hand leadership over.  I saw a very interesting article this week that said only 49% of mid west farmers in the US have actually identified a successor.  Around 15% have no intention of retiring.  The Australian figures aren’t much different.  Only 54% of farm businesses have a formal plan.

My own experience isn’t really that different.  There was no formal plan to follow when the leader of the crew decided to retire.  For the past 10 years retirement had been mentioned, but no one was game to talk about handing the leadership to another person before retirement.  No one had factored into their assumptions what would happen the chosen successor became ill, or didn’t actually want the role.  And no one was really prepared for younger members to want their contribution to be greater.

The experience I’ve been through has shown that apparently stable organsiations are actually quite brittle.  The stress of change combined with the transitions of leadership, leave people feeling everything from resentment and anger to, acceptance or apathy.  Some people may never get over the change. 

So if this can happen in an organisition with a formal structure, how much more difficult will it be in your farm or your business?  How great will the pain, anger, frustration be if the assumptions your family have found comfort in for years actually turn out to be completely wrong?  I can’t imagine it. 

I don’t think a succession plan means you are being forced out or into retirement! It means you need to work with your family or your team to plan what is best for you all.  To forget the assumptions and be honest and respectful of each others, needs, wants, desires and motivations.  I know that isn’t going to be a necessarily an easy process.  But, you can believe me, it might help avoid the painful shock when the assumptions all break when change does come.

You don’t have to do this on your own either.  There are some very understanding, professional people who can help you, your family and your business develop the right plan.  If you do anything this week, its at least start the conversation with the family.  Investigate the services of an advisor. 

Don’t neglect this one! 

After all we are all working to build and grow something together.  You don’t want it ruined because there was no plan for the next phase!


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