Succession – When is the best time to let go

Its hard to let go when you have grown an organisation, be it a business or a charity with personal sacrifice, commitment and / or investment

Sometimes this question leads to breakdown of relationships, disagreements and even legal fights or regulatory action. Humans are mere mortals, and this question always hangs over every Leader, Founder and Owner. This question can be answered in many ways successfully and sometimes unfortunately by force.

In my professional capacity, I have worked to answer this question in the business and charity sectors. My starting position has always been to question and understand the motive of the question as the answers lies therein.

Succession should be about success of the business or charity

Succession must always lead to success – this is when it becomes utmost important to define what that “success” actually looks like.

Does success mean becoming a bigger business or profitable one? Is it about becoming a larger charity or better governed one? Is it about changing the way the organisation is run or just about retiring and passing the mantle?

In defining the parameters of success, the timing matters as it focuses the minds and rewards.

When the question of “succession” is considered without working out the question of “success”, it risks leading to the wrong answer. Not all business successes require successions. And if not careful, unnecessary successions can lead to disasters and failures due to losing history, commitment, and profile of the leader internally and externally. Artificial term times don’t always work, especially when copy / pasted from other organisations.

What success looks like may even require other solutions other than succession. For example, advisors / new positions under the leader, more delegation or just good and better business planning or resources.

However, when the succession discussion is underpinned by the need of a clearly identifiable success then difficult discussions become easier to digest and problems turn the mind to “win-win” solutions. Succession planning becomes meaningful and desirable.


Good strong successors don’t grow on trees

In a family business or a family / friend run charity, the perceptions of control can dominate the succession discussion over the need for real organisational success. Not all seats on the board table mean control – the wrong successor can compromise success – without the real success, control means nothing.

However once succession is on the cards, finding the right successor can become an impossible task. The identified success parameters should determine the type of successor required – Leaders don’t grow on trees and may not be just plucked out of thin air. Promoting an amateur and / or choosing an untried hand can be a risky affair – this is why a timely succession planning is always a cornerstone of good governance.

Below are some examples of how succession planning works in good governed organisations:

  1. Delegation nourishes leadership. This can be achieved in a controlled and a phased manner. The delegation matrix should be meaningful and there should be succession planning thought behind it – This should not just be a HR tool to use when things go wrong.

  2. Input leads to outputs. Every great leader started from a junior position and worked their way up. Never underestimate a good effective recruitment strategy at junior grades. These are the stones that can be carved into eye-catching statues of tomorrow. Graduate recruitment of great corporates is designed with this in mind.

  3. Mentoring should not be accidently achieved – it should be planned. This is a fruit that can be produced through an effective HR function and through good performance management protocols. Effective leaders budget their time for mentoring – these are the seeds that can grow into the trees of tomorrow.

  4. Nepotism can be costly. It comes at the cost of achieving real success. It suppresses real leadership and opportunity. Organisations that keep nepotism in check make succession planning work effectively. These are the organisations that are designed to succeed in their organisational objectives. Those that don’t, lose in the long run.


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Author: Nasir Rafiq BA FCA is a widely experienced Finance Professional and Governance Expert. He works with organisations of all sizes and complexities.


Nasir is the Founder Director of Dua Governance Chartered Accountants and Business Advisors. A firm that specialises on governance advisory services to the charity sector.