Mediating Succession Planning Ices the Cake

Flawed, unwritten, or unclear Succession Plans are often behind a business’ failure to thrive when it moves to the next generation of leadership. A mediator adds value in a Business Succession Planning process. Why? Both to clearly outline the leadership of its future and to assure processes are in place to handle unexpected change once the plan is implemented. One person who can stay objective and focused on mutual interests is an essential member of any planning team. In the case of Succession Planning, if that person also has a wealth of experience in the issues and outcomes of business succession that is so much icing on the cake.

Some reports estimate that in the coming couple of decades 46% of business owners anticipate they will sell or transfer their business to a family member when they no longer want to run it. The rest expect to sell theirs to a third party. Other reports indicate that perhaps 49% of business owners have a succession plan. The problem is that for most of those, the plan is only in their heads. Maybe 8% have written the succession plan for how the transfer will occur should they retire or die. Fewer than that give consideration to what happens if they lose mental or physical capacity to direct their businesses. Who will have authority then? The main issue is that there may be ideas for a plan, but they are incomplete and unwritten so communication about them is open to interpretation once owners are no longer available to explain their intentions.

We don’t have enough data yet to give statistics on how the global COVID-19 pandemic affects these anticipated transfers. Maybe people have become more adaptable to life and workplace changes. Maybe though, people remain confused about decision-making authority and what it takes to lead in the economy of our current health, social, and political struggles. The one thing we do know is that things are not as they were and although meetings might be easier as online video functions, fathoming possible changes and how they can play out is still extraordinarily difficult. Add to the mix founder/owner issues and whatever concerns there are if it’s a family business and you have a perfect little Petrie dish for germinating disputes over ideals, concepts, and relationships.


Let’s face it. When the founder is no longer a part of leading the organization, that organization will change. Change can be a positive thing or a negative one. It can go easier for the company or harder. If it’s a family business, all the dynamics of change will also change the family. With so much at stake, planning the succession requires commitment and putting in the time to do it well. Commitment means the players and their advisors must be ready and willing to be flexible. There’s going to be resistance. There’s going to be differences. There will be insecurity, doubt, and uncertainty. To plan succession successfully, the participants must be brave, selfless, and realistic. They must focus on the best moves for the organization and the big picture. But everyone’s level of courage, unselfishness, and practicality is different. Everyone’s experience with change, their pace, their expectations are different. Thus conflicts arise. To remain flexible and committed to the necessary changes can be impossible without an objective third party, a Business Succession planning mediator.

The way the mediation goes is reflected in the way the succession plan goes. The roles people play must be clarified, their responsibilities, procedures for operations, relationships, governance, and goals as well. As complex as that sounds, it can be the easiest part of the process because certain “ground rules” are required for successful negotiations. The next level of changes in succession may be more difficult – implementing the succession plan. Things like transfer of ownership (within the family or to outside managers), organizational culture, vision, and strategy are all changes that require time and are not free-standing issues, but cross functional areas and affect stakeholders. If those planning succession did not commit to change that could stymie the process until something Happens to force them to deal with what’s next.


Succession planning is emotional. It affects people in the company and if a family company, people there as well. A Succession Planning Mediator must have the skills to handle organizational and family dynamics. For family businesses, a mediator must also have the extra skill of facilitating the complexities of business decisions that are colored by family values and goals. People do not leave their family concerns at home when they go to the family business office.

A mediator of succession planning will balance the perspectives of many people which is critical. When the mediator can identify how various participants manage conflict, she can assure that they address the issues, and don’t give in where it’s not necessary, and give in or remain flexible where that is needed. Are some participants competitive? Are others passive aggressive? Do some just work to keep the “peace” and avoid conflict instead of resolving it? A mediator who can facilitate collaboration is most helpful in the decision-making process.


Mediation can be done more quickly than a lawsuit, but it is also more flexible. If a mediator can generate agreement to a process and agenda, she can also help the participants determine if they want to try to do the plan in one fell swoop or break it into several shorter meetings with specific tasks. A mediator is skilled in reducing conflict and reframing attitudes such that this builds trust in the Business Succession mediator as well as trust between participants. The trust is about autonomy, authority, and collaboration toward mutual goals. On that basis of trust, agreements can be made, conflicts can be resolved, and people can accept that some conflicts may have to be set aside and addressed later. The Business Succession planning mediator’s skills are key to a productive outcome and preserved relationships.

If you are involved in a succession planning either as a stakeholder or as an advisor, consider having a skilled mediator with a background in Business Succession Planning facilitate the planning sessions. As stated above: one person who can stay objective and focused on mutual interests is an essential member of any planning team. If that mediator is skilled in the issues and outcomes of Business Succession Planning the outcome is more likely to be a cake with a delicious sponge that is iced beautifully and tastes good going down for all participants.

Originally published on LinkedIn, July 27, 2022. You can join the discussion about mediating your business or family disputes, whether business succession, workplace, customer, partnership, divorce, guardianship, estates and trusts, or elder care. Submit your issue to our Asked & Answered blog, Follow us on LinkedIn or Comment below.
Gale Allison, Mediator—Let’s Make Peace!

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