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Feb 23rd 2015, Legacy By Design

Succession is all about winning the challenges and overcoming the obstacles of passing a family business from one Roping - photo courtesy of Heidi Anderson at Legacy Livestock Imaging.generation to the next as a going concern.

To prepare for succession, we must strengthen and improve the leadership structure throughout the organization. We often redistribute an owner’s [CEO’s] responsibilities across the entire management team, which requires a concerted effort. It’s easy to get mired in the urgent for the sake of the important, but an owner must act with resolve at this point and follow-up with enhancements later.

Following a recent retreat, I assured the ownership group that, “Your brand is managed by a team of dedicated and experienced professionals. Your leaders are loyal and committed to the values that make your business a frontrunner in the industry. As a group, your managers exude an air of earned confidence, obviously based on meeting the challenges and overcoming the complications of growing the enterprise over the last several years.”

“But,” I went on, “It’s to that point, I’m most concerned. There is no fallback. There’s no depth of management skill or next-in-line to assume control and lead the operation in case of a death, catastrophic health condition, or sudden unavailability of a given leader. Your operation is uncomfortably dependent on a very small number of people with the requisite skills and knowledge to manage the enterprise successfully.”

Can the same be said for you and your business? Have you utilized an objective third party resource to assess your situation and provide constructive feedback? For this client, the operation is blessed with some capable and very talented emerging leaders. Based on an objective assessment device, leadership discussions at the retreat, on-site observations, and personal conversations with respective leaders, we recommended several possible next steps, including:

1.     Define the roles and responsibilities for each leadership position. Though you no doubt you have job descriptions and a readily accepted list of tasks, this is an excellent time to act decisively and specifically assign responsibilities. Be very clear and concise. We can adjust and refine each leader’s role over time with experience. It is imperative for the owner to begin distributing the current responsibilities of the CEO across the leadership team, and for the CEO to use his time/energy in mentoring the next generation of leaders. 

2.   Devise a level of authority and accountability for each leadership position. A person must know his level of authority before he can accept responsibility. To this point, we must establish clear lines of authority and hold leaders accountable for certain results and/or well-executed efforts. It’s okay to start small and expand while trust and understanding grow and as each leader demonstrates their ability. The point here is to give and accept a measured level of risk. For development, a person must know there is a credit or consequence for results. 

3.   Memorialize in writing the procedures to execute respective responsibilities. For this organization, and many like it, cultural capital (those on-the-job experiences are learned over time) is contained in the mind of a single individual and not readily transferable. A person can’t really teach, nor learn for that matter, what isn’t written. On the other hand, with a complete set of protocols we can not only teach, we also can hold leaders accountable for measureable results.  

4.  Design a holistic review process; one that recognizes job performance, professional development, and leadership initiative. Though this operation had a formal review process, the format was not comprehensive and well-rounded. It strictly focused on job duties and made no mention of professional development goals, results, or efforts. So, I recommended a complete re-design of the review parameters and revamp of the process to reflect future leadership needs.  

5.     Implement plans for professional development across the entire leadership team. The process of succession is one of preparation. A competitive business must be headed by professionals who’ve earned the education, gained the experience, generated the contacts, and achieved beyond common norms. Transition is the perfect opportunity to create a culture of professional development and encourage leaders, and aspiring leaders alike, to commit to written plans.  

6.   Hire/promote/prepare a ‘second’ tier for each leadership position. Hiring, training, and preparing a next level of leaders is critical to continuing business success. A bench of capable leaders prepared to assume control gives depth to the operation and allows for additional growth opportunities. Depending on your point in the succession process, building management depth and creating a team of potential managers for the coming transition will also alleviate crisis should something happen to a key member of the staff.

Don’t let the choices for a next step overwhelm; you don’t have to do them all at once. Rely on your team, and bring in consulting expertise, as necessary. Actively working through each of the six possible actions will fortify the business, improve operations, prepare for the unknown, and plan for an eventual owner/management transition.

Originally published as 'Actions Trump Words' (December 2014) for North American Equipment Dealers Association for 'Equipment Dealer' magazine.

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