Handing the reins of a family business to the next generation is never an easy task. Too often news that the “grand fromage” of the family is stepping down to be replaced by their son(s) or daughter(s) is relayed in a single announcement to the family businesses, their employees and their customers and it is left at that. Audiences are given plenty of time to absorb the news in the hope that the transition, when it comes, won’t come as a shock.
In an era time of openness and transparency, this lack of ongoing communications planning can make the task of establishing the new generation’s leader infinitely more difficult than it needs to be. It means that from day one, he or she will have an uphill struggle, proving to other members of the family, to senior leaders and employees and to customers that they are the right person for the role – not based on their DNA but based on their abilities. Family businesses take succession planning seriously and communicating this decision should be taken seriously too.
The message externally requires careful consideration too as competitors or critics will be sharpening their talons. Change at the top is always a time of instability in a business, and any sensible critic will capitalise on or even fuel worries that things will not run as smoothly as they used to. The period since the news is announced is a weak spot for the family business and future leader, and an opportunity for others to speculate about whether the new chief is up to the job.
Communications provides the key to preventing this and smoothing the transition. As soon as the change is announced a detailed communications strategy needs to be put in place, that reassures customers, and builds trust with employees and the other shareholders of the business. It’s about advising the current CEO on the merits of starting to jointly lead the business from the time of the announcement, before gradually taking a back seat early on in the process and allowing the new leader to step forward. Direct communication together with the media can be used effectively to give the heir apparent a public and authoritative voice that shows why they have been chosen to take up the mantle and drive the business forward for the next generation and beyond.