How “Misguided Protectionism” wastes time in Founder/Successor relationships

by IdeaTransfer on May 22, 2011

Misguided Protectionism is the converse of Extreme Independence and just as damaging.  Many founders want to protect successors from mistakes and stresses of the dark early days.

But today’s successors are likely to have more formal education, technical knowledge, and pragmatism.  A very different DNA from yours, but not one that needs you to make it easier on them than it was for you.

True, successors aren’t ready to take on every task, and expecting too much would be like tripping them as they take their first steps.  But there is a critical difference between successors learning from failures of their own making and being set up for failures outside their control.  Founders have to transfer the expertise and insight that allows successors to pass each test themselves.  But they have to learn it and take the test on their own.

What we hear too often from founders is, “He/She isn’t ready for.…”  Sometimes that’s correct, but too often it becomes a kneejerk response.  And worse, it becomes a cop-out for founders who are not keeping up their side of the transfer contract.  Your successor can’t be ready unless you give him or her the means to get ready.

In highly personal service businesses and professional advisory firms this distinction difference has to be driven by what’s best for the clients.  A-Clients are the true capital of service firms, and A+ service is their prerogative.  Without your insight and relationship savvy, successors can’t deliver A+  service.  And these clients will not appreciate having their matters in the hands of trainees.

But founders can let successors watch them at work with clients and then debrief together afterwards.  You can let them take a small role in every client meeting.  You can let them write the meeting recap and set the agenda for the next meeting with clients.  These are small roles that grow into big roles, and at each step A-Clients see you have picked a winner for their future.

In product-based businesses the transfer of leadership can be a higher priority than knowledge or relationships.  Your management team may be wary, looking for any sign of indecision.  What happens when a new young quarterback makes his NFL debut and fumbles the handoff?  It will be awhile before teammates accept him as their leader.  On the other hand, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning started slow.

Incrementally demonstrate to your management team and your employees that the executive decision process has two distinct minds working as one.  And then over time delegate authority for more and more decisions that successors must take responsibility for.

Founders have to anticipate the mistake of misguided protectionism.  You need to find a balance between the value of independent action with the value of support.  Reasonable risk-taking increases the value of success, and an occasional failure is an opportunity to learn how to recover with character.  Successors need to be assertive, but only by earning their way at every step.

Give us your insights.  Share your experience as a founder or a successor.  Where have you found the balance point?


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