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Emerging stronger as a successor: 'Successor, design your support'

By Philip Mackeown

Picture yourself as a successor, recently arrived in a foreign market with no clear job description, no clarity on why you are there and a suspicious local management team. Your brief is to 'Find your own way and make a difference' in a company with €1 billion plus sales and a track record of minimum active family involvement.

Having returned from another market and unsuccessfully put forward the undertaking of an MBA as next career step, this was the situation that I found myself. As I attempted to come to terms with yet another market and contemplated my ongoing commitment, I deduced I was in the wrong role in the wrong place with no idea as to how I would—or could—move forward. I took matters into my own hands and did the one thing that appeared to me rational at the time: I left the family company and achieved the MBA. 

In revisiting this more than 20 years later, and with the benefit of hindsight, I now realise the mistake at the time. I—and the family—had failed to understand, identify and put in place adequate support for family involvement. I had no sounding-board, independent source or filter against which I could consider my role, path or decision-making. Not good.

Based on this experience, I now advocate the importance of support for any successor as a hidden (but vital) contributor to successful succession.

By support I also mean assurance: self-confidence as demonstrated by faith in oneself and evident self-reliance, integrity as evidenced by commitment to the family enterprise and as safeguard against tendencies to career underperformance (or derailment).

In this and a following article I present several ways for you to think on how to put-in-place the support—the assurance—to move forward with confidence in your relationship with the family business.


The necessity and benefit of continuous feedback for all employees is now a given. In a family business this is not always so. Indeed, successors frequently point to isolation as they develop a career and seek to improve performance. My own experience is telling: upon the completion of a project as a young manager I received no feedback on the work I had done, on its merit (or otherwise) or discussion of the issues identified by me. As a ‘career’ successor, your baseline support is the availability of feedback; my mistake at the time was not to actively seek this. Even if those in a relevant position do not provide feedback—for whatever reason—your first priority is to ask for it.

Your second baseline is career development; to do this you must know what you (and the company) are working towards. No-one develops in a void. Individuals develop in two ways: role progression and active participation in education. As evidence of intent and clear thinking, a written development plan should capture your commitment (and obligation) to succession.

At the very least it will include detail on current role, anticipated likely roles, a development objective for each role and identified education requirements all against a general timeline. If your company is a diverse one, include anticipated location(s). If a variation in role is not anticipated, you can substitute/add additional responsibilities or delivery of particular projects. Either way, you are moving forward while the company (and your family) identify markers both for your performance and for your improvement. If non-family managers will not settle for anything less, why should you?


As a successor you must learn (and unlearn) more than anyone else. The demands of ownership set you apart from those around you, require attention and do not disappear with age. To succeed you need support for ownership and those life-long, unique, complex and important challenges experienced by all successors. Below and in the following article, I present three approaches to consider as you design your (ownership) support:

Find a mentor

Someone with experience who will hold up a mirror to you. In retrospect, my failure to achieve this was the biggest error I made. A mentor who will understand and provide a perspective of ‘ownership’, one different to that of ‘management’. With an ownership perspective comes the need to balance concern with family with clarity on those aspects of ownership you can influence and effective authority of those things you have to manage.

Secondly, a mentor to moderate, encourage and guide the expectations you have for yourself. A foil to self-imposed standards and overly-ambitious goals, which—while admirable—can lead to overstretch if not tempered with realism. A good mentor will provide this.

Finally, who will catch you if there is a bump in the road (as there will be)? A mentor with a willing ear and unconditional regard for your welfare can talk you ‘off-the-ledge’. Family disagreement, difficulty with a role, thoughts of leaving or disappointment with career progression can—and will—challenge your commitment to the family business. 

When should you consider working with a mentor?

My advice is engage one as soon as you can once induction and training are compete and you have started your first role. If not working in the family company, consider a mentor to guide you as you decide your contribution, manage key relationships and influence succession.

Whom to engage?

I would steer clear of current executive colleagues, or family members who will be conflicted. A past employee, a current (or past non-executive) or former boss (external to the family company) all have potential worthy of consideration. Another route is to identify and develop a rapport with another family business successor with relevant experience and skills (here I declare an interest). More on this next month.

Edward de Bono, the physician who coined the phrase ‘lateral thinking’ wrote: “You can analyse the past, but you have to design the future.” A major part of this ‘design’ role for you is to be continually on the watch-out for possible candidates as a mentor for ownership. Do this in anticipation of the demands of ownership and your future needs. Look for individuals with demonstrated independence, unconditional positive regard for you and an evident willingness to listen.

Successor, design your support

As a manager the availability of feedback and a sound development plan provide a baseline of support on which you can build a career. As an owner, a thoughtfully engaged and committed mentor will enable you navigate the possibilities, opacities and rapids of ownership. 

In my next article, I continue to present ways in which you can design support, to enable you achieve your goals. Also support to provide assurance to you, the family and the business to achieve successful succession especially when the going gets rough.

Philip Mackeown, family business leader turned business leadership and career coach, will chair the 18th Campden Wealth European Families in Business Forum, held in-person in Berlin on the rescheduled dates of 30-31 March, 2022.

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