3 Leadership Tips for a Particular Kind of Entrepreneur: the Successor
BY Gene Marks
North Korea's Kim Jong-un may be a despot, but his succession problems probably look a lot like yours.
Kim Jong-un? I know how he feels. Really, I do.
The young ruler of North Korea has been getting a lot of bad press. Within the last few months, Jong-un has launched test missiles, re-positioned other missiles for a potential attack on his neighbors, threatened a nuclear war with the U.S., strained ties with his chief ally China, cozied up to Iran, announced he will restart a nuclear reactor to add to the country's arsenal, made sexist taunts at South Korea's leader, and talked about more imminent nuclear tests. His behavior continues to destabilize the Korean peninsula, add tensions among the world's superpowers, and, worst of all, I'm now seeing way too much of Dennis Rodman on TV.
And even though he's led North Korea since the death of his father in December 2011, no one really knows much about Kim Jong-un. His birth date is unsure. (Was it 1982? 1984?) His schooling is unknown. (Was it in Switzerland? England?) His hobbies are not discussed. (Though we now know he enjoys hanging out and watching basketball with ex-NBA players with a history of lunacy.) It's rumored that he has a newborn baby.
Jong-un May Have Something in Common With You
If you run a small business, you have to feel a little sympathy for the guy. His dad, Kim Jong-il, was the big man, the "Dear Leader," the undisputed force behind North Korea for decades, known for his heavy-handed rule, appalling human rights record, magical abilities to control the weather (seriously, some believed that), mass starvation in his own country, kidnappings, gulags, bombings, murders, and the build up of nuclear arms. Those are big shoes to fill for any successor, particularly a son.
Admit it, you can relate. OK, you haven't kidnapped, bombed, maimed, or murdered anyone recently. And a nuclear program is a bit beyond your budget. But maybe you're the son or daughter who was groomed to take over a beloved business. Maybe your older parent is in line at one of those early-bird buffet dinners near Fort Lauderdale with a bunch of other retirees, still worried about how the company's doing under your reign.
The challenges of taking over a business from a father (or any powerful executive) are not insignificant. The transition at one client of mine was so unsuccessful that the father had to return from retirement to salvage the business from the son's ineptitude. I've seen companies succeed under a second generation's leadership, and I've watched others fall into bankruptcy only a few years after the change occurred. I'm not rooting for young Jong-un to succeed, especially if it means potential nuclear war with his so-called enemies, or continued human rights violations in his own country, or more appearances of Dennis Rodman on Jimmy Kimmel's show. But the story, one that's repeated countless times by businesses all around the world, is the transition of a business from an older family member to a younger one.
So, if you're the successor, here how you can you be successful:
Build Your Own Team From the Ground Up
Years ago I was hired as a controller for a 50-person pharmaceutical company, replacing a very popular guy who took a better job at another company. His staff was sad to see him go and wary of me. Everything I did was compared to my successor. A few people on my five-person staff questioned my abilities and even made fun of me behind my back. Within six months the entire staff was replaced. Some people left on their own accord. Some I let go. (I know. It was pretty Machiavellian of me.) But I had enough headaches to worry about. The last thing I needed was to be belittled by the very people who reported to me.
The same thing is true for any new leader--whether you're Kim Jong-un, leading a new department, or taking over your father's small business. Your key managers have to immediately recognize you as the leader and you have to feel 100-percent comfortable that they're behind you. You don't want to hear: "That's not how your father would do it," or "If your father were here..." It's now your company and you need your employees to do what you ask them to do, without carrying baggage from the past. You want people who will be grateful for the opportunity to work along with you and for the chance of assuming a leadership role in your new organization. Be prepared to make significant changes once you take over the reigns.
Keep Your Rivals Close
Abraham Lincoln did. Michael Corleone did. And now it's Kim Jong-un's turn. When there's transition there's always intrigue, even in a small business. There will always be people who will be jealous of your position and think that you don't deserve it. They will think that they could do a better job. These people may be the old guard who were loyal to your dad, relatives who want to grab at more ownership, or others who see an opportunity to advance. These are not your friends. But the truth is that many of them may have valid points and good ideas. Your job is to figure out a way to keep them in the fold, while balancing their aspirations and ill intentions, with your desire to profit from them.
This is easier than you think. You have the upper hand because your dad thought you were the best suited for the job. Now you just need the self confidence to be able to listen to, and benefit from, the insights, criticisms, and suggestions from others who are after your job. And you need to have the focus on the end result. Lincoln kept Salmon Chase as his secretary of the treasury, despite Chase's own aspirations to become president himself. Why? Because Chase was the best man for the job at treasury and the end justified the means. You may dislike and distrust certain managers. But you must find a way to balance their own aspirations and profit from them. If you can do this, you're worthy of the top job.
Establish Your Own Ideas
You must have a few ideas of your own. Kim Jong-un would do well if he came up with a few innovative ideas to help his people and his country's stature that are independent of his father's. Admit it: the "evil American empire" thing is getting a bit trite don't you think? Notice how he's a little more media-friendly than the old man? See how he's trying to create a slightly better public persona? That's a start. Great successors have their own plan for growing their companies and establishing their leadership. New ideas tell everyone that there's a new sheriff in town and things are going to be even better. People don't want to hear the same old thing from a new leader. New deserves new.
Will my people listen to me? How do I demonstrate my authority? Am I ready for this challenge? Will my inexperience show? What if I want to do things differently than dad? Will my dad's loyal people turn against me? Would my dad be proud of me? We don't know much about Kim Jong-un. And what we've seen so far hasn't been great. But I can bet these same questions are going through his mind. And you too, right? They're the same things that challenge every new successor--whether you're running a repressive regime in Asia, or a small business in Alabama.
GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post. @genemarks