Why Succession Planning is Important for The Long Term Success of Your Small Business

As managers or owners of a business, we usually think about succession planning in the context of who will take over the company once we leave.

This is something we rarely think about when we set out to write a business plan for a new business. When starting a business, we focus our energies on launching the business and then growing it. We rarely think about what happens if we’re no longer around to run that business.

Succession planning is critically important for businesses of all sizes and essential for small businesses and startups. The negative impact of poor succession planning can be devastating if something goes wrong and a swift transition occurs.

Think to yourself, “What if I get hit by a bus today” and you’ll get the idea. If you got hit by a bus, you’d want to know that not only is the right person standing by to take the reins, but you’d also want to be sure that they know where everything is and how everything needs to be done tomorrow.

At some companies, this is pretty simple. The designated heir may have trained under the boss for months or even years. She may have been tutored in every single thing the boss does on a day-to-day basis, and she may know how all of the paperwork and digital assets are organized and filed. She may have learned step-by-step how the boss manages operations: paying the vendors, negotiating the agreements, managing the HR, and maintaining the BI.

But most small businesses do a poor job at succession planning.

The operational details of a small business can range from simple to complex, but documenting them well may save your business.

1. Plan for succession. 

Who exactly will take over? What will her role be when you’re gone? How can you clarify the details of what will happen on day 1 post-you?

It starts with a careful process of planning and execution. Once you have identified the person or people who will take on your responsibilities, you’ll need to focus on those activities and tasks they will take over. And after that? You need to understand how the knowledge transfer will take place.

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2. Make a list.

Take a look at what you do every day and write it down.

If you start today and keep it up for a few weeks, you can begin a journal of sorts that documents all of the operational aspects of your company and how you manage it.

The list itself is a great jumping-off point, but once you have created it, it takes time to determine what’s important for succession and what’s less so.

Whittle your list down to the 10 or 15 most important (and usually complex) tasks you perform regularly; these are the activities you will want to document for the person whose job it will be to take them on.

3. Record the process.

I have found that the easiest way to document your activities is to do it in real-time; go about your business, do your thing, but take step-by-step notes while you perform whatever task it is that you want to document.

For instance, when performing a task such as budget reconciliation, keep two documents open: the spreadsheet or financial software you use for the job and a Google doc or Word document where you can record what you are doing step-by-step. How you format that document is up to you, but I prefer a simple numbered list of every step I take as I take it.

The next time you perform the task (maybe in a week or a month, depending on the specific chore), Open your document and use it as you do the work; make any edits or additions and file it away safely. It will necessarily take you longer than usual to perform the task, but the record you create will be invaluable to the person whose job it will become to do this work when you are gone.

4. Use the right tool. 

Google docs or spreadsheets are perfect for most of what you’ll want to do, and the ability to easily share these with your successor is awesome. Still, several other useful tools may be appropriate.

For complex computer-based processes, you might also consider screencast software, such as Screenflow, that creates a video record of exactly what you are doing.  Other tools include Evernote, Basecamp with its powerful collaborative tools, and Visio for processes explained in a flowchart.

5. Let someone watch you. 

One of the most powerful ways to learn something is through observation and direct hands-on experience. So what better way to teach your successor than with a direct demonstration or tutorial session?

Set aside time where you can work one on one with your protegé and walk them through exactly what you do, how you do it, and why you do it this way.

Let them sit down and take the controls from you and (patience, please) correct him as he goes. This can be a very effective shortcut and a great way to immerse him in your process.

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