Five years ago today, I left my previous life and came home to run the publishing business my father started 49 years ago. I still remember the anxiety as I pulled onto the Carlisle Pike and drove by my high school. It was surreal, as if everything I went through during the 27 years since I left home had been a dream. I felt the twinge of a panic attack coming on.
Walter Lippmann said, “The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on.” Perpetuity is the tie that binds across time. I heard a tremendous acronym last year that was right on the money: A.L.I.V.E.—Always Live In View of Eternity. But how exactly does a mere mortal do that?
Taking over a second-generation family publishing business was uncharted territory for me in all respects. But here I am five years later happier and more settled than in any other career I’ve worked. People stress a lot over succession planning. Here’s a few of the things that got me through my succession process that will hopefully put some success in yours.
Take it easy. Don’t spoil the time you have left with your predecessor by stressing about the future. This is especially true if you are dealing with someone who is suffering from a terminal illness. As long as they are alive and in charge, the whole shootin’ match is theirs. Don’t be obsessed with fixing everything before you’re even at the helm. In my case, there was very little planning involved. I spent the last three months flying from Missouri to Pennsylvania to be by my father’s side while he was in home hospice. We did not talk about the future direction of the company or its financials. We shared precious time together, I recorded his memoires for a book, and we watched TV.
You’ve got to truly want it. My father never once, during that time, asked me to come home and run the business. He knew it had to be my own decision and so, one week before he passed, I told him I was leaving my current world and coming home to take the reins. He squeezed my hand and told me that I would take it places he never could. That one moment, that one sentence, was all I needed to propel me forward to carry on the legacy. Just because you’re the son/daughter/heir apparent doesn’t mean you’re automatically the one to carry the torch. You have to want it more than anything. If you don’t, be honest with the founder so they can make other plans.
Keep the DNA, but put your individual stamp on it. I left home at 18 to literally earn my own stripes. Growing up with a powerful parent you have two choices: you can stay in their shadow or you can forge your own path. The more powerful the personality, the more impossible it will be for anyone to recreate it. So I spent decades filling my own experience bag knowing that sometime in the future I might get the opportunity to carry on a legacy. It’s like the Seinfeld episode where Kramer sells his life stories to J. Peterman and then can no longer use them. The stories are most meaningful if you’ve lived them yourself; otherwise you’re just a storyteller or an actor. The second bit of advice I read about when I returned home was the importance of rebranding at the one year point. Although this will sound heretical to many who know you under the original name, it is essential that you let the world know that someone new is at the helm and that the company is on a sure course. By changing our name from Executive Books to Tremendous Life Books, but keeping my father’s “kicking man” silhouette as our symbol, we kept our DNA yet opened it up to any type of material that promoted not just an executive life but a tremendous life.
In government, in churches, in businesses, in life, smaller is always better. Hitler had millions of followers, Jesus had only twelve. Be careful of surrounding yourself with too many advisors, board members, trustees, or family members. Too many cooks spoil the broth. I was blessed in that I could make the decisions affecting the company quickly and blessed with a board that loved my father, but most importantly, trusted me. Therefore we were not constantly bogged down in minutia and personalities. Big is nice, profitable is better. I can remember how I was constantly comparing my father’s numbers to mine when a dear friend and VERY successful speaker pointed out to me that because we were lean we actually were more profitable than his business was. The light bulb lit up! My expertise is in operations, so although I didn’t yet have my father’s reach, I did have the means to create profit. Bring your particular business acumen to the forefront. It will undoubtedly be different from your predecessors so you’ll be able to deal with issues they couldn’t.
My father left me with a company that had a sterling reputation, no debt, unlimited content, and a host of contacts with the conviction to help me carry on what he had started. That is perhaps the most important portion of succession planning: Although I was optimistic about the opportunity to carry on what my father started, I had no idea it would still be in existence and continuing to evolve five years later. No one can do it on their own so don’t sweat finding that one special person who will take it to infinity and beyond! Focus on sowing seeds across a myriad of years and locations so that when the next crop begins to grow there’s plenty of it.