In the high stakes game of a succession planning for family businesses, there is no room for hidden agendas, secrets and lies. Here's what to do about it ...
In a story, there is often a moment when secrets are revealed.
When the curtain is drawn open and we get to see what was hidden behind it.
Think of when the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz was revealed as a just a regular middle aged man playing with dials behind a curtain.
Or when we finally realized Bruce Willis’ character was a ghost the whole time in the movie The Sixth Sense.
Or when Roy Schneider’s character uttered the famous line “we’re going to need a bigger boat” in 1975’s classic movie Jaws after the shark was revealed in all its fearsome size and strength.
It’s helpful to think of that moment in a couple of ways. First, it usually has the feel of ‘the final piece of the puzzle” - the story has been hinting about it for awhile (sometimes in brilliantly subtle psychological ways), but prior to then, it still was hidden, the information was not fully in our consciousness. It feels like we are dancing around it in some way, but we just can’t grasp it.
Second, it changes the plot. From that moment on, we are in a resolution phase of the story. The hero can now move into action, change course if necessary, take the bull by the horns, solve the mystery, rescue the fair maiden (you know the drill).
Because he/she now knows the previously hidden information - the half-formed puzzle suddenly and completely makes sense.
But it’s not just fictional stories where that ‘reveal the secret’ moment is in action.
If you look deep enough, the motif of ‘revealing the hidden’ shows up in all areas of life.
Take personal health for example. I’ve often been surprised at how seemingly pleased people sound when they tell me they’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness. “I have Lupus!” they declare enthusiastically. “That knee problem I’ve been having? It’s arthritis! ‘
It’s not that they are happy they have the illness, they are just relieved they finally have a diagnosis.
They know what the problem is - the months (sometimes years) of suffering with mysterious symptoms now have meaning. The frustration of knowing there’s a problem, but not knowing exactly what it is, is finally gone.
The paradoxical happy-like feeling is because they can finally see a path forward. Even if the news isn't good, it's better than not knowing and feeling hopeless. (In medicine, getting the right diagnosis could be the difference between life and death).
It is very satisfying to solve a puzzle, and not only for the intellectual satisfaction, but for the simple reason that it allows us to move into action.
And of course, the concept also applies to business in a multitude of ways.
Everyday good decision making requires us to ask “what do I not know about this?” “what is hidden or missing here”?
It is actually a very crucial question, especially when you are facing a complex situation with multiple characters involved.
Take succession planning in a family owned business for example. Logically, when it comes time for dad or mom to retire, you’d think that it would be a matter of opening up the books, taking a look at all the financial and business information available, assessing the skills and leadership abilities of the person who is proposing to take over or buy them out, and developing a succession plan based on the best interests of all involved - mom, dad, the family, the business, the staff.
While in any business succession, there would be a lot of moving parts, you’d assume that all the relevant information could be found and laid out on the table.
But we’ve found that is virtually never the case. There are always hidden dynamics at play.
And in order to move forward, in an optimal way, those hidden dynamics have to be brought forth into the light of day.
In other words, in the high stakes game of a succession planning for family businesses, there is no room for secrets and lies.
Tana Plewes, Hume Chalk COO, in her book The Possibility Process, talks about the necessity of taking a complete inventory of the current reality, including hidden dynamics. She uses this diagram to explain it:
At the risk of sounding like a hard-boiled detective from a 1950’s pulp fiction novel, I’ll just sum it up by saying - “you have to get to the bottom of things!”
What is really going on? Revealing the bottom part of the iceberg is what is going to ‘change the plot’ and get things moving toward the heroic conclusion we all want (a successful, profitable business transition and a happy family).
How do you do that?
Tana suggests a few things:
Keep in mind the truism that there are always hidden agendas, and (adding a layer of psychological sophistication here) - they are not always even conscious. In other words, you may have a hidden agenda you aren’t even aware of - it's not just your family members!
Here’s some real life situations we’ve seen:
Hidden dynamics, information not fully in our consciousness, must be uncovered and brought to the surface or we risk staying in that frustrating space of knowing something is wrong, but being unable to do anything about it. It leads to fixed mindsets and stuck patterns.
This is not easy stuff. It’s as much about family systems as it is about business systems. It’s as much about emotions as it is about logic. (Tana calls human emotions the biggest untapped resource in our economy).
Not uncovering hidden agenda leads to bullsh*t jobs and overbuilt washrooms, it leads to business failures, staff turnover, failed projects and succession plans gone awry.
Facing the truth, about yourself, your family, your team, is not always easy. It takes courage. It often requires trusting an ‘outsider’ with your closely-guarded dirty laundry.
But it’s the only way to effect positive change and find a way to the happy ending.
Do you know something is wrong in your business but are struggling to figure out what? Are you involved in succession planning or wanting to retire/exit/sell your business? Contact us and let's talk about it.
Diane Currie Sam has worked for over 25 years across multiple industries to help her clients to initiate massive growth in their businesses, secure millions of dollars in funding and sales contracts, and initiate change through the power of strategic storytelling. She is the founder/CEO of “Be a Better Story” business services, and contributing columnist for Inc. Magazine. She has a Bachelor's of Science degree from the University of BC and a Masters of Arts in psychology from Trinity Western University.
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