The Succession Paradigm has shifted.

By Eric Layer

My grandfather spent his entire career at the same company. My father had two distinct careers. My generation doesn’t even understand the concept of a career, instead operating in “gigs.”

This isn’t just a byproduct of evolving preferences – it’s because the Disruption Cycle® is accelerating. You could have one career in an age when industries lasted longer than 50 years. In an era when disruption is rampant, entire categories rise and fall inside of a decade, so jobs come and go even more quickly. The jobs Apple is hiring for today didn’t exist a couple of years ago, and they probably won’t exist a few years from now.

In that paradigm shift, careers aren’t the only thing that have changed. You probably purchased your business from the last generation in a single, major buyout event: your ascendency, a large loan, the legal paperwork, and your predecessor’s retirement all happened at almost the same moment. There was an apprenticeship model built in: the buyout happened when you were both “ready.” Once he had taught you everything you needed to know, and once he was ready to let go of the reins. Usually, this was a pretty late-career move, timed to occur only once the successor had achieved mastery and when the predecessor was ready for retirement or something near it.

That model wasn’t wrong, but like my grandfather’s single-employer career and pension-funded retirement, it was a product of its times. It’s just not practical in an era where today’s reality is tomorrow’s ancient history.

Here’s why: there is exponentially more risk involved today for the successor that the old model fails to recognize. There was a time in NYC when a taxi driver would save his whole life to buy his own medallion, and it was a good investment because it was guaranteed to appreciate. But in 2021, where titans rise and fall in minutes, there are plenty of medallion owners whose million-dollar investment depreciated to $200K overnight thanks to Uber. Successful businesses today are field armies who can turn on a dime – not castles that turn obsolete in the century it takes to build them. Modern business owners who ask their successors to value their castle the same way (and at the same multipliers) that it was valued when they bought it are failing to appreciate the sea change that has occurred – and the massive bet they’re asking their successors to make on the promise that another one won’t happen before they retire.

On top of all that, disruption is a young person’s game. That’s not ageism, it’s an economic reality. Any financial advisor will have a radically different portfolio strategy for a 55-year-old than he will for a 35-year-old. If I only have a few years, or even a decade, left before my retirement, I need to be playing not to lose. Big risks aren’t just dangerous, they’re downright foolish because I have no time to rebuild my losses if things go sideways. The very opposite applies for a young investor: if you don’t take risks, your conservatism is going to mean huge opportunity costs compounded over the span of your career. In the 2020’s, setting a company on a path toward long-term success means taking some risks: playing to win. Those variables and the way they have evolved in the last 50 years have moved a lot of levers when it comes to succession planning: succession needs to be happening earlier, and it’s far less about “being ready” than it used to be. The strategic wisdom the older generation can impart is more important than ever (which is why you need a pre-retirement succession plan: so that you’re still around to impart that wisdom even after you’ve ceded majority control). But the tactical how-to advice the older generation wants to pass along has a rapidly deteriorating shelf life: the tools of the trade are rusting mighty fast these days, and the new owners need a chance to build some of their own tools.

When my own company’s founder, Steve McKee, announced publicly that my partners and I had become owners, I was puzzled and a little saddened by all the questions of “what’s Steve going to do now?” Steve hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s been gracious enough to let us reinvent the company he created because he knows that’s the only way it will survive. And we need him around for exactly the same reason.

That mental shift of decoupling “what will I do after I sell?” from “how do I set up the company I built to succeed for another generation?” might just be the first hurdle you need to clear. But if you can, it’s time to start gearing up for that jump.

Succession can be the crowning achievement of your career or the blight on an otherwise stellar performance. You can’t afford to make any assumptions. Make sure you’ve laid out a succession strategy as thoughtful, careful, generous, and creative as you’ve been your entire career.

Eric Layer

Partner and author, Eric specializes in building things faster and better than mere mortals. Call Eric when you have an impossible mountain to climb. He’ll get you to the top.

Sign Up for Growth Insights

"*" indicates required fields


"*" indicates required fields