Succession, the monumental question

The topic of succession has a long history and has never been limited to the exclusive domain of family business. Putting it into perspective can give us a deeper understanding of its importance in all organizations, both family- and non-family-owned.

After writing this post, I thought it was perhaps more suited to an academic readership, rather than a general business audience. That said, I think citing my original sources of inspiration on the topic will offer everyone a better and broader conceptual framework. My apologies in advance to all of those authors whose noteworthy books aren’t mentioned here. For space considerations, I had to keep it short.

There was a popular saying in 1999, when I began delving into the subject of family-owned firms, which, translated from Spanish, would be something like “Succession: the monumental question.” My friend and colleague Miguel Ángel Gallo had just published his 1998 book La Sucesión en la Empresa Familiar (Succession in the Family-Owned Firm).

That same year, Prof. Ivan Lansberg released his best-selling book Succeeding Generations: Realizing the Dream of Families in Business. More than 20 years later, it remains a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand the challenges of successions in family-controlled firms and the keys to a smooth transfer of power.

That same year also saw the publication of another must-read book: Neil N. Koenig’s You Can’t Fire Me, I’m Your Father. The last chapter offers a unique feature: a list of 55 best practices for family businesses, methodically linked to their related chapters.

These are the two books that made the biggest impact when I began studying the realm of family-owned firms. As a focus of scholarship, family business only started arousing the interest of academia in the 1980s, after nearly a century of scant attention and, in some circles, its consideration as irrelevant.

Succession has always been critical, especially in large businesses, both family- and non-family-led. Company size in succession processes is important, as examined in the late 1980s by two distinguished scholars in their respective landmark books.

Harvard Business School Prof. Richard F. Vancil published Passing the Baton: Managing the Process of CEO Succession in 1987. It is not specifically focused on family-owned businesses, but the result of his observations of a broad swath of succession processes in leading organizations, many of them non-family businesses.

Outside academia, he also served as the president of MAC Group, a prestigious consulting firm. His book reflects his distinctive ability to design conceptual frameworks grounded in real-world situations.

The following year, Prof. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale University published The Hero’s Farewell: What Happens When CEOs Retire. Like Vancil’s book, it was not specifically geared toward family businesses, yet featured a model that is still considered the gold standard for successful successions.

I’m sorry if this post was too academic, but felt it was important to frame this important issue. In a future post, I’ll explore succession from a practical, real-world vantage point.

2 thoughts on “Succession, the monumental question

  1. I agree that this book You Can’t Fire Me, I’m Your Father, is a must read, I loved it.
    I also find the article very interesting but if very specific, I am waiting for the next more real and plain article, greetings.

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