Mentors Aid Successor Development

Mentors Aid Successor Development

by Craig E. Aronoff, Ph.D., and John L. Ward, Ph.D.
Co-Founders and Principles of the Family Business Consulting Group

Pairing up with a personal mentor for three to five years can be invaluable to a successor.

A mentor’s job, in part, is to help the successor learn to exercise judgment, take risks, accept a philosophical commitment to sharing and relate to people in an empathetic and intuitive way. The mentor also may confer specific business knowledge, particularly if he or she is skilled in areas the successor wants to develop.

A primary qualification of a mentor is a keen regard for the successor’s best interests and a desire to help the successor become even more successful than the mentor. The mentor must be someone who would never feel threatened by even the wildest success on the part of the successor.

The mentor should not be the successor’s parent or boss, however. This frees the successor to ask difficult questions or to appear vulnerable.

Ideally, the mentor will be a trusted professional advisor, an outside director or a secure senior top manager who knows the business, the family and the successor well. Under the best circumstances, this will be a confidential relationship that exists only for the benefit of the successor — not a vehicle for channeling information about the successor to a parent or boss.

Mentoring relationships should be informal and based on personal affinity. In the most successful mentoring relationships, the successor takes most of the responsibility for initiating contact. Every few weeks, he or she should find a reason to sit down with the mentor with an informal agenda in mind. “These are the kinds of things I’d like to talk about,” the successor might say. “Why do we price our product this way?” or “Why was this idea of mine rejected?” or “Where is the industry going?” might be starting points.

If the mentor is an outside director, the successor might visit his or her business, learning about management systems, human resources or other aspects of professional management. One director of a family foods concern occasionally stops at the company on his way home from work to talk to the owner’s sons about any problems they may have. The director offered advice when one of the sons wanted to open retail units in department stores. “We had no idea how a department store works, but this director did,” the owner says. The director helped the son prepare pro forma financial statements and organize the units.

Some successors benefit from having two mentors. One may be someone with knowledge and experience in the successor’s job area, who helps the successor become proficient on the job. The other mentor watches “the big picture,” guiding the successor along a career path and helping focus his or her thinking about the future. This “career path” mentor is always on the lookout for opportunities for the successor, and helps him or her evaluate and act upon them when they do arise.

Successors also should be encouraged to seek out models in the business or community whom they admire and want to emulate. While relationships with a model are more distant than with a mentor, they nevertheless can provide valuable counsel and inspiration.

This article appears with permission from Family Enterprise Publishers.