Take a Hard Look at the “Softer Side” of Succession Planning

Take a Hard Look at the “Softer Side” of Succession Planning


by Michael Henning



In addition to the mechanical aspects of succession planning, there are also a number of personal and psychological aspects that weigh into how one makes the decision to step down or aside. Following is an excerpt of an article that reviews a book called The Hero’s Farwell, written by Jeffrey Sonnefeld. The article was provided by Mike Henning of the HenningFamilyBusinessCenter in Effingham, Illinois.

In his book, The Hero’s Farewell, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld describes four departure styles (Monarch, General, Ambassador, and Governor) based upon his extensive research. Monarchsare found to be in love with their stature and power while at the same time frustrated with their accomplishments, knowing they need to do better if they were to immortalize the company in industrial history, they just need a little more time. Monarchs look to shape their companies into their own images, and they do not leave office by their own choice, but by forcible removal by the board, a successor or spousal encouragement. If not forced out, the Monarch will not choose or train a successor, in fact, they undermine their successor in the name of taking the business to new levels of success in turbulent times.


Generals, on the other hand, will develop strong successors, and then turn on them and squeeze them out. While the Monarchs focused on external challenges, the Generals are seen as turnaround experts who use internal dissention to organize and rally employees around their goals and presence. Generals seem to possess charismatic powers who, once their successor was seen as struggling, would return to greatness and take the troubled firm from the ashes of bankruptcy to record profits.


Ambassadors, on the other hand, take great pride and pleasure in leaving a firm to their successor. One could label their feelings as late-life integrity and completeness. The Ambassadors’ identity does not hinge on their role as the leader, they are not threatened by the company’s ability to go forward successfully, and they do not carry the heroic myth of indispensability with them.

The last group, the Governors, worked hard to complete their mission, they tend to serve as effective stewards of their firms. For the Governor, retirement seems a career switch such as, entering government service, start-up ventures, or turnarounds. We normally see the Governors becoming impatient for their next adventure.

Armed with this insightful information, it becomes obvious the keys to letting go differ from individual to individual. While some may need to sever their relationship with the company totally because of their inability to let another take the lead, others may need to evolve slowly away from the organization as they prepare another suitable life. Yet we see some who can’t wait to break from their present company so that they can get on with the next challenge, and a few who just enjoy being volunteers, resting, doing recreational activity and traveling. The point is, no type of leader is right or wrong, just different from each other. Therefore, each person must be treated according to their needs.

Recommendations for Patriarchs/Presidents


  • Goal setting. Start exploring what you will do with the rest of your life. Write down what you want the results of leaving the company to be then map out a course of action that will get you to those goals with assigned timeframes.
  • Select and groom your successor. Set the curriculum of activities needed for improvement and begin to teach and set-up experiences, delegate, coach, hold accountable. Then as the successor improves and needs space, go on longer and longer vacations while leaving your successor in charge.
  • Control and reporting systems. As you evolve from the company, having systems in place will assure your ability to track the progress of the company and your successor’s activity and judgment.
  • Become a mentor for family members and others in the business.
  • Develop a network of peers who have already been there — retired.
  • Develop a sense of closeness with your spouse. Work together to hone a shared vision for the future.
  • Expand and enrich your relationship with your children and grandchildren. Go on special trips together.
  • Work on being more caring and compassionate. Find your way to make the world a better place. For example, create a charitable trust or foundation.
  • Remain in good health. Listen to the wake-up calls from your body.
  • Work to cope with the fear of death or the loss of work, need at home, status in the community or industry.

Advice to the Next Generation Leaders


In all that you do, take care of Mom’s and Dad’s needs first. After getting educated, paying your dues, learning all you possibly can learn about the technical aspects of the business and the industry, preparing yourself to lead, being the most committed person possible, leading a turnaround to new success or developing and managing a new division — time out! Check out the needs of your parents, your siblings, your cousins, your own family, then work to communicate and help all to achieve their dreams and goals.

This article appeared in the February, 2000 issue of Family Ties, a publication of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s FamilyBusinessCenter (www.uwexeced.com/fbc).