Letting go of your baby is part of the succession planning process. Ideally, you already have a person or people in place to move into the role of ad agency leader. But whether you are seeking an outsider to take over, or have a team in place, you need to recognize that at some point, the agency will cease to be entirely under your control.
This is perhaps the toughest part of executing your succession plan. For many agency owners and principals, the agency is both a business, and a passion you have nurtured, prodded and pushed into its present shape and culture. Letting go of this wonderful thing you have been so invested in over time is not unlike waving your child off to college. They are no longer entirely under your protective wing. They are stepping forth, hopefully well-armed with the tools, skills and values that you tried to teach them. It’s time to let them try their own wings.
The second most stressful part of your succession plan is learning to accept that your successor is not you. Even if you chose, subconsciously or in full awareness, a successor very similar to yourself, they are inevitably going to make different choices and decisions than you would. Their particular set of life experiences, business knowledge and leadership style is going to send them in new directions. You need to be ready to step away and cede control.
Passing the Torch
If you are particularly brave and bold, you may even have chosen someone like this with the agency’s future in mind. Your successor should not be wedded to the agency’s past, but have an eye on far horizons. The agency’s new leader will face different challenges and opportunities than you did. Don’t try to tie them to what worked in the past. Their path will demand different solutions and choices. Picking a successor with different skills and abilities helps to create an evolving agency, not preserve the one you built.
As you choose your successor(s), look for soft skills as well as hard skills. It’s fantastic if you can find a successor with creative chops and a good business head on their shoulders. But they also need to be good communicators, empathetic, have strong interpersonal skills (we used to call this “people skills”), and be good leaders—able to inspire as well as guide their team forward.
It can be helpful to hold ongoing discussions as you choose a successor. Make sure your people have a say in where they hope the agency will go as the future unfolds. Look for a successor who can help steer the agency in that direction. By integrating internal planning and team input with successor selection, you can ensure a better fit between successor and agency, and align values and culture in ways the successor can build on.
What If You’re an Introvert?
Most articles about leadership assume that leaders are big personalities, leading with charisma and gusto. But there are plenty of creative personalities in the smaller agency business who are quiet, thoughtful leaders. That may have worked well for you, but does your successor need to be an introvert, too?
Assuming leadership from an introvert could create problems if the successor is an extrovert—your employees may clash with a suddenly flipped leadership style. On the other hand, a very different successor may enable employees to more easily let go of your leadership, simply because the new style is inspiring and creates fresh energy. As the leader stepping aside, your job is to ensure that employees and your successor are aligned in direction and outlook. The more you help to get the fit right, the better off the agency will be when you finally exit.
As long as you are involved in the business, you can, if asked, provide wise counsel, or just act as a sounding board for the new leaders. But remember to be hands off; if you are to depart the business, your new hands need a chance to test their ability to steer a sound course.
If you find yourself clashing with your successor, don’t be alarmed. Do be aware that some of your tension is separation anxiety—you are surrendering control of a thing you loved. But if you feel there is more going on than just your natural reluctance to let go, stay involved. A new leader who arrives carrying a broom, ready to make sweeping changes, may stir up resentment; people tend to prefer the status quo, and leadership change means increased anxiety and stress for your entire team. Make sure the employees and your successor are in agreement. Signal your trust in your successor and the team to unify and figure out how to move forward without you having to hold onto the reins.
If the successor and team are presenting a united front, that’s a good thing. Your new team is working collaboratively toward a new vision—theirs, not yours. Your job is to make sure they are united, and then get out of their way.
Open your eyes to successor candidates you may have set aside because they didn’t reflect your personal style, temperament and point of view. Lay down the mirror.
See also: Ensuring Your Successor Can Succeed