17 June 2022


Jess Mayhew of change management strategists, Alembic Strategy, discusses how and why strategic thinking can lead to transformational growth when succession planning for your business.

Take a step into the world of a bus driver. You get up and drive the bus from stop one to stop nine, and the next day you get up and do it all over again. You have conversations with people all day long about being the bus driver. Your self-concept is I am the bus driver. But then, you enter this weird space one day where you realise you’re not going to drive the bus anymore.

One of the passengers is your child. They say, “I need to get into the driver’s seat! Get in the back of the bus!” You think, for my whole life this has been my seat. You want to show them what to do and how to do it. You can see all the potential mistakes. But they don’t want you to do that, they just want to get in the seat and drive.

At the same time, you know that they are going to work it out, perhaps stumbling along the way a little, just like you did. There is a part of you that wants to get off the bus. There might be a passenger on board who you’ve identified as the best potential new driver… and they might not be your child. Or, the next in line to the bus driver’s seat could say no to the takeover, causing a row. Who is going to drive the bus? These are some of the challenges that succession can bring.

Strategic thinking is the difference between chaos and fear or efficiency and momentum.

We all shift between periods of stability and transitional phases in our lives. In times of transition, everything is uncertain. Ambiguity makes people reactive because they don’t know what the outcome will be. There is only so much you can do to calm and comfort people who simply must move through this time of growth. Yet, with the right type of guidance, people can get through it successfully so that what has been built doesn’t get broken. Without training around succession, the uncertainties can lead to big mistakes. These can be incredibly painful. Training brings more certainty into a space where there is naturally a lot of ambiguity.

We look to guide people through this time with different types of structured conversation. Succession is inevitably an emotional conversation. It’s important to accept this rather than suppressing emotion, whether positive, negative, or a mix of many feelings along the spectrum. When people are talking emotionally, distortion gets introduced into the mix. Unique perspectives and histories create new meanings from words that had different intentions. Emotional conversations can cause people to lose their temper or feel frightened, so people sense them as dangerous and avoid them. Because they avoid them, they never gain the skills to navigate them safely and effectively.

Common advice around emotional intelligence involves managing your mindset. This is referred to as a “top-down approach,” using your mind to control your feelings. Most people struggle to do that. There is another methodology called a “bottom-up” approach. You can learn to reduce the intensity of your feelings by using your body. We use embodied work to teach people how to master their emotions. Simple examples include Qi Gong, mindful breathing exercises, or walking in a beautiful space... We move flexibly between strategic thinking and embodied work depending on clients’ current needs. Using your body reduces the intensity of feelings in an accessible way. These exercises, within a structured environment, facilitate the conversation – it can be emotional without it being overwhelming; people can have the conversation without flipping out.

Ambiguity makes people reactive because they don’t know what the outcome will be.

This could be considered a missing piece from strategic thinking within consultancy: building on people’s conversational competency. Once they have these skills, we have something to build upon. We can begin to ask, where are we going with succession? Where is the business now? What could it do next, considering what’s happening in the current market? It’s about bringing together everyone’s knowledge, and asking, what’s our strategy going to be? We are figuring out whether the current business model can make that journey, or if it needs to be changed.

Case studyA client came to us asking for director training. They’d been stuck in toxic rows around succession for three years. Siblings were arguing over the position of CEO.

We asked the team to envision what they wanted using a simple tool called Magic Wand. We strategically ranked options and gathered them onto a shared whiteboard.

The small shift towards strategic thinking enabled them to prioritise three things, which they had not been able to do for three years. It’s a strategic way of thinking about a relational problem, which wouldn’t come naturally to people. It doesn’t make it unemotional, but it does take the feelings down to a level where they’re not overwhelming. They were talking to us, rather than each other. We provided the structured, neutral environment they needed.

Next, we engaged with the father and siblings together. We’d opened things up: they weren’t stuck in a paradigm where one person had to be CEO, which was just a fight. The concept of shared leadership led to them working out the roles and how they would work together. These were approved by the father, and they took over. The entire transformation took a year and a half.

It's an honest discussion from everybody exploring the strengths and weaknesses and thinking about risks. We move the team to a place where they all share the same view of the current model. We bring everyone’s understanding of what’s possible in the current market together. Finally, we identify the gap between where they are now and where they want to be, which gives them their strategic possibilities.

So, the next question is, are you going to put energy into it? The whole team needs to be committed to delivering on that pathway together. Everyone needs to have an aligned view about where they’re all going. At this point, there will be another set of difficult conversations. It’s high stakes, there are lots of different opinions, there are inevitably high emotions in the air. People are asking, why me and you? How are we going to make sure that we’re together on this? Do I want that? How will we work together? Do we want to be on the bus? These questions are emotional; they’re about being in a relationship with someone else and in a relationship with a shared task. Balancing the emotional and human side with a depth and wealth in experience around strategy facilitates transformation.

When you get this wrong, all of that emotional energy is channelled into frustration and arguments and you feel it. It’s stasis, you’re stuck. If you get it right, then all that emotion gets channelled into making the change happen. Everyone leans into it together. It's a return-on-investment question with succession - a shared investment. People have to decide to invest in it together. Picture a sparking cable flapping about. If you can plug it in, suddenly all that energy is going down the channel. Typically, when you get that plug into the socket, the business zips off. That’s why strategic thinking is transformational: it’s the difference between chaos and fear or efficiency and momentum.  


Illustration by Asa Taulbut


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