14 Sep #138 – Succession or Secession?
ESSENCE: There are two basic choices when a faithful leader who has faithfully shaped the purpose, values and culture of an organization no longer wants, or is no longer able, to continue to lead the organization—succession or secession . But we are not talking about who fills the leader’s seat—we are talking about what happens to the HEART of the organization. Succession of heart is even more difficult than succession of a leader. Succession of heart can be accomplished in a number of ways, but it requires intentionality. If the heart of the organization is aligned with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities, secession of heart is just as easy as succession of heart is difficult. Because the current of the world flows toward business as usual, unintentionality will likely lead in that direction. In a broken world, the best stewardship of a particular organization at a moment in time might be to permit secession of heart, provided it is done intentionally after prayerful discernment.
We have been thinking about the right time to explore the topic of “succession” vs “secession”. The passing into glory last week of Queen Elizabeth II and the orderly succession to the throne of her son Charles (and the succession to the title “Prince of Wales” of his son William) makes this feel like as good a time as any.
We believe there are really only two basic choices when a faithful leader who has faithfully shaped the purpose, values and culture of an organization no longer wants, or is no longer able, to continue to lead the organization—succession or secession. But we are not talking about who fills the leader’s seat—we are talking about what happens to the HEART of the organization—its real WHY.
The Options: Succession or Secession
Organizations rarely, if ever, have a succession plan as orderly and obligatory as the succession plan of the British monarchy. Whether or not Prince Charles really wanted to assume the responsibilities of King Charles, it seems clear he understood it as his duty. In fact, he had been groomed his entire life to fulfill that duty.
One only needs to watch a few episodes of the television series Succession or Yellowstone to see the difficulties and drama that can arise when a strong leader who has shaped a business realizes it needs to pass to the next generation. The difficulties and drama are as old as King Solomon:
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)
Merriam-Webster has these definitions most relevant for our discussion:
• Succession: the continuance of corporate personality.
• Secession: formal withdrawal from an organization.
In talking about the options for the heart of the organization, this is what we mean by succession and secession.
• Succession of heart: The leader passes leadership to a person or group of persons who share the leader’s commitment to the heart of the organization and are likely to be intentional about continuing to cultivate, curate and protect that heart. The heart continues.
• Secession of heart: The leader passes leadership to a person or group of persons who do not share the leader’s commitment to the heart of the organization and are unlikely to prioritize preserving that heart and may even take steps to change the heart of the organization. The heart is withdrawn.
In speaking about legacy, John Maxwell writes:
Just about anybody can make an organization look good for a moment, but the best leaders lead today with tomorrow in mind. . . . Because a leader’s lasting value is measured by succession.
And the Bible suggests another potential legacy path:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
The Succession Option
Succession of heart is even more difficult than succession of a leader. Even in the succession of the British monarchy, people wondered whether King Charles would carry on the heart of Queen Elizabeth in the way he reigned (and his first speech as King gave some reassurance that he did intend to preserve the heart she had cultivated over 70 years on the throne).
Succession of heart can be accomplished in a number of ways, but it requires intentionality. Here are some examples:
• A Succession Person: The simplest example of heart succession is finding a new leader who shares a commitment to the heart of the organization. This might be a person groomed in the organization to take over under the same ownership or someone in the next generation who shares that commitment in a family business. It is much more difficult if the leadership transition is accompanied by an ownership change.
• A Succession Buyer: In a sale to a third-party, succession of heart would mean finding a buyer with that commitment. There are private equity firms whose stated business model is preserving the culture of the organizations they acquire (although it is unclear whether they would honor a heart of business a better way that is aligned with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities) and even a few (e.g., Sovereign’s Capital) committed to Biblically faithful leadership. If a leader/owner wishes to sell and is unable to find a third-party buyer committed to preserving the organization’s heart, it might be possible to arrange a full or even partial sale to the existing management group or even employees (e.g., using an ESOP) who have helped cultivate and maintain, and who value, the organization’s heart.
• A Succession Contract: Contractually maintaining an organization’s heart following a sale is quite unusual but not unprecedented. The ongoing tension between Unilever and its Ben & Jerry’s subsidiary has been in the news recently. When the founders of Ben & Jerry’s sold the business to Unilever, they insisted upon quite elaborate contractual provisions designed to preserve the unique culture of Ben & Jerry’s even while under the ownership of Unilever, including maintaining a subsidiary board outside Unilever’s control.
Of course, succession of heart works only for so long as those taking over continue to prioritize maintenance of the organization’s heart, not only while they are leading the organization but also upon the next change in leadership. Even private equity firms that are committed to preserving culture generally seek to hold that commitment during the 3-5 year period after which their commitment shifts to exiting the investment at the best price for their investors.
Simple neglect—a lack of intentionality and commitment—is likely to result in the erosion of the organization’s heart, particularly if it is a heart that is contrary to business as usual. We have said many times that an unintentional culture tends to become an unhealthy or even toxic culture.
The Secession Option
Secession of heart is just as easy as succession of heart is difficult. Because the current of the world flows toward business as usual, unintentionality will likely lead in that direction.
As an unintentional culture tends to move toward being an unhealthy culture, leadership transition without a commitment to preserve the organization’s heart will likely (or almost certainly) lead to secession of that heart—particularly a heart of faithful leadership through business a better way. Here are a few ways it can occur:
• A Secession Leader. Leadership transition to a person who lacks a commitment to the organization’s heart will lead to the erosion (or purposeful elimination) of that heart. One example is ServiceMaster, which was famously known for including “honoring God” in its mission statement and having a statue in front of its headquarters of Jesus washing feet. Bill Pollard was a successor leader committed to succession of the heart of the organization cultivated by its founder. As Darrell Cosden writes in a paper titled Honoring God and Developing People: ServiceMaster, Bill Pollard and the Heart of the Corporation:
After Pollard’s exit from ServiceMaster God functionally became a much vaguer concept, and ultimately irrelevant to the business goals. . . . When utility reigns supreme, it is not a huge leap to conclude that profit really is the ultimate end goal, and people as well as God/faith can be a part of the means to that end pragmatically, even if optionally. This however is a complete undoing of the entire history, ethos and institutional identity of ServiceMaster.
The Bible is rife with examples of faithful kings and prophets being followed by unfaithful successors. For example, one only needs to read the story of Hezekiah and his son Manasseh in the Book of Kings to see how quickly a faithful legacy can be unwound.
And [Manasseh] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord . . . . For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done . . . .” (2 Kings 21:2-3)
• A Secession Buyer. We have seen numerous examples of a faith-inspired heart of an organization disappearing following a sale to a business as usual buyer. We have read about companies with overtly faith-inspired mission statements and values only to go to their websites to find no trace of that heart. A little digging on the Wayback Machine website archive revealed when the website changed. I little more digging online revealed a sale of the company shortly before the change.
• A Secession Financing. Taking a business public is a financing step (either financing for the company in a primary offering or an exit financing for owners in a secondary offering) toward secession of heart because ownership and control of a public company is always open to the highest bidder unless intentional steps are taken to preserve control in the hands of successor of heart owners. For example, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, the largest independent Coke bottler in the United States, is listed on NASDAQ but the founding Harrison family retained voting control through a separate class of common stock. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated is a unique example of a public company that has been able to retain its overtly faithful heart because of the intentionality of its owners.
Just about anybody can make an organization look good for a moment, but the best leaders lead today with tomorrow in mind. (John Maxwell)
Succession or Secession: Which Is Better?
You might be thinking, “Succession of heart is obviously better than secession of heart“. Well, not necessarily.
Succession/secession is similar to the overt/covert choice in how to lead faithfully. Hopefully you recall our discussion in earlier posts of the Placebo we call The “Add Some Faith” Pill and its related Side Road of Cosmeticizing. These can lead to the idolization of overtness. Similarly, it is easy to idolize succession of heart–pridefully wanting to preserve a faithful legacy–when God might have a different plan. Yes, as a general matter overt is often more faithful than covert and succession of heart is more often a better path of faithfulness than secession of heart, but overtness and succession can be poor stewardship!
We talk about the heart of an organization, but an organization doesn’t really have a heart. An organization (including a business) is a platform that facilitates humans working together in relationship–living out their purpose to use their skills to love each other through service. Those people have hearts about work, and the expression of those hearts forms the culture of the organization.
We have also expressed the view that organizations are not merely constructs–they are CREATIONS that become part of God’s creation. An organization such as a business is a product of the Creation Mandate—it is created by humans exercising their God-given authority and mandate to “be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth, and subdue it“. Remember, the Creation Mandate extends beyond merely putting together raw physical materials. It includes “subduing” through the creation of culture and social structures such as organizations.
As part of creation, an organization belongs to God (just like everything else) and God’s plan may be for that particular platform to exist for a season. The job of a faithful leader leading an organization faithfully is to steward the organization in a manner consistent with the Creation Mandate, maximizing the flourishing of God’s creation. In a broken world, the best stewardship of a particular organization at a moment in time might be secession of heart–it might be to allow the “grain of wheat” to die so that God can use it to bear “much fruit”. For example:
• If the hearts of the humans who have been working in the organization have been transformed to desire and pursue business a better way in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities rather than business as usual, God’s desire may be to lead those people out of the organization and sprinkle their hearts to transform the cultures of many other organizations toward business a better way.
• If secession of heart yields the greatest economic value for an organization (e.g., selling at the highest price to a Secession Buyer), God’s desire may be for the faithful owners to extract that worldly value and steward it in ways that have an even greater positive impact on the flourishing of God’s creation. Recall God’s command to the Israelites when they were leaving Egypt:
When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely. Speak now in the hearing of the people, that they ask, every man of his neighbor and every woman of her neighbor, for silver and gold jewelry. (Exodus 11:1-2)
Of course, choosing succession of heart or secession of heart requires prayerful discernment (ideally with trusted friends and counsel)–it must be intentional. Just as it is easy to idolize succession of heart (and pridefully pursuing legacy), it is even easier to rationalize secession of heart (and selling to the highest bidder). It is not about what looks good to people who share our faith or what makes us feel good–it is about seeking God’s will. To recall a quote from Jeff Van Duzer that we have shared in past posts:
The same God who calls us to [fulfill the creation and redemption mandates in business] provides us with access to the discernment and power that will enable us to fulfill them.
PERSONAL NOTE (from PM): Just a mile or so from our home in Fairfield County, CT is an Episcopal Church called St. Paul’s. In the 1970’s and 1980’s it was the site of an extraordinary charismatic/evangelical revival chronicled in the book Miracle in Darien by Bob Slosser. Services got so large (the church reportedly grew quickly from 200 to 1,200) that they outgrew the church and had to move to the nearby high school auditorium. The Rector, Terry Fullam, who presided during that period left in 1989.
Although the revival that occurred during Fullam’s tenure subsided after his departure, the church remained vibrant, albeit smaller, under his successor, who was known for generously making St Paul’s facilities available to Christian groups whether or not they were affiliated with St. Paul’s (one of those groups being close to my heart–the New Canaan Society). Today, the building sits empty as a skeleton of its former self, having suffered a rapid and sad decline when the next succession turned out to be a secession.
The “church” organization was a platform for God to gather people and transform their hearts. The heart of the church was the collective heart of the people gathered there. The people who left took those transformed hearts with them.
Was the demise of that platform a tragedy? Looking at the decaying structure, you might think so. Would succession of heart been a better result than secession of heart? There is little doubt that the succession and continuation of a healthy and thriving 1,200 member church in this small community would have been a good thing.
But ascending to a higher altitude and looking at the wider “Church” in Fairfield County gives a glimpse of what God may have been up to in allowing secession. The human hearts transformed at St. Paul’s were blown like the seeds of a dandelion to seed Spirit-led churches far beyond Darien, CT. Perhaps God intended the organizational “platform” of St. Paul’s church to have a season with a purpose beyond itself. Perhaps the empty skeleton is like the stump of the Giving Tree.
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Photo Credit: Original photo by Damian Siodłak on Unsplash (photo cropped)