Life in the fast lane

In Olympic track and field, the world’s best runners compete individually and then, on the last day, race together as members of their nation’s relay teams. Regardless of raw speed, victory usually goes to the quartet most practiced in the intricate ballet of a flawless handoff.

Since the baton must change hands at top speed inside a congested “fly zone,” mistakes are spectacular and costly. Many world record holders have left the track in defeat after they dropped the baton or collided with each other because they did not practice their handoffs.

Although business succession usually involves just two players, the parallels to a relay race are striking. In both cases, the forerunner and successor must jointly prepare for the handoff or face joint defeat.

With so much already in place and even more at stake, even well-planned management successions can run off track unless leaders remain vigilant. Three common flaws are usually behind a bad handoff.

* If either parent or child uses business position and power for personal gain during a transition, trust is usually the first casualty, followed quickly by declining business performance. This is no time for grandstanding. Keep your attention focused on the transition, and take your prize home later.

* Most businesses face changes during the changing of the guard. When two leaders accomplish nothing more meaningful than getting new business cards, the successor is missing an opportunity to implement new ideas. Just as great runners accelerate as they grasp the baton from their teammate, new leaders should make quick and decisive moves to right wrongs and put their business back in the lead.

* Incumbent and emerging leaders often lose perspective during succession. While no one wants to lose momentum in the short run, any business that lasts more than a generation is in it for the long run.

Neither the outgoing nor the incoming leader should attempt to cash out or goose results by sacrificing the firm’s brand or future. Every new leader, especially those inheriting sick companies, comes in with a clean personal slate. Those who think in terms of years rather than months do better.

Racing through the succession fly zone is just as harrowing as watching a leading Olympic runner pass the baton. As the crowd holds its collective breath, the next portion of the race is all up to those two runners.

For your business, the spectators for your succession are your employees, vendors and customers. They are all anticipating a successful outcome. Andrew Birol is President of Birol Growth Consulting, a Solon-based firm that helps grow businesses by growing their best and highest uses. Reach him at (440) 349-1970