3 key issues to consider for family business succession planning

By Dr Steffi Hussels
Most family businesses will want to pass the enterprise on to the next generation but relatively few actually do so – less than half pass to the second generation and only a fraction to the third.


Without formal succession planning, family-owned businesses run the risk of not being sustainable. Some owners regard succession planning as simply a question of informally handing over the business from one generation to the next. They do not want to plan or think about their withdrawal from the business.

This reluctance typically arises from a strong sense of attachment to the business; an aversion to letting go of control and power; fear of retirement; and also the inability to make succession choices between their children. Financial factors often also play a part.

If there is not an adequate successor selection process in place, a business can either cease to exist or fail to realise its true potential. Those families who do successfully pass to the next generation stand a good chance of seeing their business go from strength to strength.


The key issues family businesses need to consider when succession planning


1. Plan for the business and plan for the family

Succession is a process, rather than a one-off event.

Families that understand this consider it a multi-stage process that happens over years, beginning long before the time when the heirs step up to their new roles. The planning for that process will encompass not just the roles of the next generation in the business prior to succeeding but the preparation of the business for the succession.

It will also cover the role of any non-family management in the process; changes to shareholding structures; board membership and management; decision-making processes and impact on the family. All too often succession planning focuses just on technical issues – financial, tax and legal aspects – whereas the bigger challenges of the human dimensions are often completely neglected because everyone wants to avoid the ‘zone of uncomfortable debate’.

In multi-generational family businesses that continue to flourish, these families share common goals concerning both the business and the family. For example, they have mechanisms to resolve conflict and deal with emergencies and continuously build trust among family shareholders who are outside the business. There must be a clear vision of the relationship between the family members and the business, which may well evolve over time along with clearly articulated values.


2. Prepare the next generation

When succession is managed smoothly, the next generation is prepared not just through the right education and development but often by gaining their early experience elsewhere. When they do then join the family business, they arrive as managers in their own right, with skills and experience, and are not viewed as 'the kid with a silver spoon in their mouth'. 

In a growing number of cases where a family business has philanthropic interests, the next generation will take responsibility for managing charitable or social enterprise projects as a means of cutting their teeth prior to entry into the main business.

It is also common for the next generation to take a director role in the business at the same time as the senior generation steps back into non-executive roles.  This means they can offer advice and guidance when asked while giving the incoming generation the room to breathe and put their own stamp on the business.


3. Hire from outside the family

It is a fortunate but very unusual family that has a gene pool capable of supplying all the ability necessary to take the business into the second, third, fourth generation and beyond. Non-family members from board appointments downwards will be attracted to a business where achievement and performance are justly rewarded.

Many family businesses treat inter-generational transition as an opportunity to re-assess the governance structures they have in place and recognise that employing more non-family involvement can be a step forward. Outside advisors and board members often bring a detachment and clarity to decision-making that is inherently difficult for those family members who are often too emotionally attached.


It is never too early for a family business to start planning for succession. The perception that succession is a brief episode occurring over a short time is almost certainly a significant barrier to getting it right.


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Many thanks to Dr Steffi Hussels, Director of the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship, and David Molian, Past BGP Programme Director, Cranfield School of Management for this blog content. 
Dr Stephanie Hussels is Director of the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship at Cranfield School of Management and Director of the Business Growth Programme.  She has a passion for early-stage and growth companies, with special regard to family businesses.  Aside from her work with start-ups, she regularly cooperates with charities and firms on how to encourage and implement intrapreneurship.  In recent years Stephanie was the Director of Cranfield’s full-time MBA programme.  She teaches a wide range of entrepreneurial topics and quantitative research methods on executive, graduate, and doctoral levels.  


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