Back in May at the Small Giants Summit in Detroit I gave a talk on practical ideas on making the hand-off from one chief executive to the next. In my last blog post I focused on the next-generation side of the equation. This time I’m speaking mostly to company founders, business owners, or other head honchos who are handing their “baby” over to the care of someone else – a tough, postponed, and often botched transition.

For this posting I’ll assume you’re aware it’s time to step aside in full or in part and regardless of your age or circumstances. You’ve identified your successor. You are not selling and disappearing; a real hand-off needs to happen. What can you do to make this changeover as healthy as possible? Here are some tips from the trenches.

  1. BusinessReportsBuildingTrustInstall “fingertip controls”. As you near the time of transition, you will want to know the business status at a glance, without showing up or calling in. Examples are a one-page daily dashboard, a set of trailing-12-month trends for your significant financial measures, and a negotiated agreement for when your successor must call/involve you. These reports are fed to you automatically, without your asking. They allow the leaders in your company to rally around what’s most important. In this way you’ll learn that the business can run for a while (weeks? days? hours?) without your intervention – a major turning point for both you and your leaders.
  1. Envision/build a future for yourself outside of the company. Your business is the love of your professional life: letting go will be very difficult. Write a book, start another business, take up photography, spend your kids’ inheritance down to $0, whatever. When you walk towards something, the pursuit brings you life. If you are merely trying to walk away, letting go is much harder to do. Without an alternate goal in your life, your heart and hands may be like Vise-Grips on your business.
  1. Build trust with your successor. Business results are important, but competence only goes so far. Can the two of you openly communicate without fear, blame or judgement? Do your values line up? Can you count on each other? What it takes to build this level of trust varies with every relationship, but here are some excellent guidelines. Given what’s at stake, this is no time for hoping it works out.
  1. Actively step back. Remember what it was like when you got started or took over. You made decisions. You celebrated or learned from your mistakes. It was messy but exhilarating, like dating. So now you’re the seasoned veteran. Watching your successor run your company is like watching someone date your daughter. You know what happens… and trust me, you don’t want to see it.

Do things that send the message you’re not in charge anymore. Keep those fingertip controls (in #1 above) coming so you know the pulse, but change your job title. Switch offices. Work away from the office more often as time goes on. Find what works. Remember, your absence infuses your successor with tangible authority. If others monitor your okay-ness by looking at you over your successor’s shoulder, you haven’t done enough yet.

  1. Coach, support, and advise, then hold your tongue. Impart your spirit into them without micro-managing. Let them discover the business (don’t tell them everything). Allow the new leader to fail; you certainly did! Despite the risks, refuse to make decisions your new leader can make. Celebrate and thank them often.
  1. When it’s time to go, go. Your shadow influences the new leader in ways neither of you can fully appreciate until after you’re gone. Often he or she has even higher expectations for the business than you do… but may be riding the brake… out of concern for your okay-ness… when bolder action is what’s best for the business.

Congratulations! Now walk towards the future you’ve envisioned. You, your family, and your employees will be grateful you did.

Please feel free to add your own advice in the Comments section below.