The Succession Taboo

The Succession Taboo

Mortality is a given faced by everyone, but how each of us deal with that knowledge and possible attendant anxiety can be very different. In terms of business – family-owned or otherwise – it is important that this fact be dealt with in a healthy, direct and timely manner.

Partner, Global Head of Family Business

KPMG in France


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Let’s look at the three most common ways in which business people cope with the thought of death in terms of work behavior:

Repress it through busyness

A common approach to the fear of death is a refusal to acknowledge it. Senior executives for example may neglect or refuse to address their succession, preferring to instead to keep going as though they will never be leaving the company.

This is problematic not only on a personal level, but also on an organisational level, as often a company stumbles or stalls due to the leader holding onto the reins too long and not establishing a succession plan. (Successful succession plans, moreover, allow for a period of handover, during which the outgoing leader and incoming leader work in tandem to ensure a smooth transition phase.)

In family businesses the personal/emotional and business ramifications of such denial over succession will be intertwined.

Work hard to leave a lasting mark

From the Egyptian pyramids entombing pharaohs to more modern architectural feats such as Romania’s Palace of the Parliament, many men and women have tried to alleviate death anxiety by creating something that will physically stay on Earth as testimony to their existence and greatness. This mentality is referred to as the edifice complex.

The fixation by some on creating a family business dynasty is a modern-day example of the edifice complex. It is felt – consciously or subconsciously – that the family business is a lasting mark on the world ensuring one’s name and existence is not forgotten.

Replacing death anxiety with positive motivations

None of these mind-sets are necessarily unhealthy, depending on the extent to which it is adopted. The desire to leave a legacy, for example, can be a positive motivator, helping executives to eschew frivolous matters for those that are more significant and promise long-term benefits and sustainability. Some executives find the establishment of a foundation a meaningful legacy goal. Family business owners also have the well-being of their children as a possible legacy focus.

Staying active and productive is likewise a good thing, as it keeps you from dwelling on your pending death all the time. But some reflection is certainly needed if you’re to make practical, legal and psychological provision for your departure from the business.

Creating a healthy business climate

Executives need to recognize the role that death anxiety plays in any business and address it properly, as unattended it can lead to depression, burn out, excessive absenteeism, anger and outbursts, and more. As the leaders of a business, executives need to first tackle their own death anxiety, finding ways of making their work meaningful so as to alleviate that anxiety. They will then be in a position to help their employees do the same.

A workplace where everyone is motivated by the significance of what they do during work hours is a workplace likely to be populated by content, ambitious, energised and productive people.

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