Good Advice on Succession Planning

By the time this hits our blog I’ll have left the design company I helped start. And that’s a good thing.

Life dictates that we all need to evolve and grow personally and professionally, in order to reach our potential and make the most of the time we have. This is also true of businesses and is particularly pertinent in the case of the creative industries, where the pace of progression is relentless.

When we started, the first question our accountant asked Chris and me was if we were aiming to build a ’Lifestyle’ business. We had no idea what that was. Still don’t to be honest, but in accountancy vernacular, it’s making enough to fund how you want to live, but you’re not going to scale it to take on the world! We didn’t want to be big, as in headcount and square footage, but we did want to offer value to global businesses. To grow our expertise, the quality of our client engagements and ultimately our bottom line.

I trained as a designer, but I knew I didn’t want to be ‘on the tools’ forever. Being honest, I simply wasn’t good enough. And this is a good place to start. Knowing your weaknesses and accepting the circle of your expertise is a strength. Going into business you need to partner with people that can really nail the shit you’re poor at and even more important, seek out people that are even better at what you think you’re good at.

Boom! You’ve created a catalyst for positive change and continual evolution via personal and professional challenge. Every day.

From its first week of existence, Good has been built on these foundations. We’ve always looked to employ better and better people to continually challenge our thinking. But never at the cost of our culture.

Intelligence and brilliance are all well and good but if it’s not grounded in the values of your organisation, your goose is cooked at gas mark Ego. We’ve been careful to cultivate experts who are grounded in straight-talking integrity and want to find the very best solutions for our clients. Simple as that? I’m afraid to say, it isn’t. Getting even small groups of very smart people to work together, putting aside personal glory for the common good, is a daily mission in effective diplomacy.

And so, with a bit of help to sharpen the edges and round off the corners, you start to build leaders across every facet of your business. In our case – In Creative. Digital. Analysis. Planning. Account Management. Finance. Front of House. Everywhere the business is touched by suppliers, partners and clients, it’s robust and singing from the same hymn sheet. It’s consistent, smart, engaging and delivers on its promises where others can’t. It’s our brand.

To coin a sporting analogy, as time has gone on I’ve found myself spending less and less time playing for the 1st team, and more and more time on the bench. The young girls and boys we’ve brought through the ‘academy system’ have become a helluva team. And they’re winning way more than we did when I was playing! For some, I’m sure this sounds like a nightmare, one where they would put their foot down and reclaim the captaincy, but not to me. I’ve relished my latter-day coaching role and I can’t tell you how proud I am of the team and what they’re achieving together.

Unity around a shared vision coupled with real, quantifiable expertise leads to success - however, you want to quantify that. The key being, success for all. The best work comes from teams and if you’re serious about competing at the top, you need to maintain the best people. You need to dismantle the glass ceiling on occasion to create room for them to breathe and need enough gas in the tank to get them where they want to go. I think that’s enough analogies for this piece.

But you get the picture I’m sure. Knowing who you are, when to start and what you want to build is vital. Knowing how and when you are going to affect an exit in the most positive and virtuous way possible, is critical. Planning for succession takes time, money, effort and really good people with a collective vision for growth. It’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s not for those that love being at the coalface. And it’s certainly not for those that love the sound of their own voice.

For everyone else who’s hung in thus far, here’s what I’ve learned.

1.    Know yourself

Real fortitude and clarity of vision come from embracing your weaknesses. The ability to dismantle your own ego, to ensure you are offering your customers the right solutions via the best possible people, is vital to building strength in depth. Ultimately it also guarantees your human foundations are of a quality and depth to support your agency after you’ve gone.

2.    Employ future leaders

Your greatest asset is your people. Never forget it. Don’t settle for average, look for the diamonds in the rough. The genius thinkers, that can be difficult, but make all the difference. Not the ones that want to bask in their own magnificence, but the well-rounded, down to earth thinkers that want to share their knowledge. The ones that know they need others working with them to really shine. The oil in creatively stormy waters.

3.    Have a vision for growth

Turnover is vanity. Profit is sanity. Cash is king. Never a set of truer words when thinking about succession. You cannot chase growth at any cost. Taking anything that’s thrown at you to purely build numbers around turnover, headcount and square footage is naïve. You must focus on consistently creating differentiated and quantifiable value for clients via problem-solving intelligence. Smart thinking to deliver more with less, for sustainable and stable, profitable growth.

4.    Underpin with financial rigour

Detailed monthly reporting, supported by bombproof financial systems and processes is critical to running a tight, well run ship. Time capture, variance analysis, GP% versus the cost of sales, and accurate cash flow forecasts are just some of the basic metrics you’ll need at your fingertips. Intuitive reviewing of the myriad of data outputs at your fingertips, in order to make informed decisions at the right time, is the heartbeat of a well-run outfit.

5.    Get advice from those in the know

With the best will in the world, with succession planning, you’re entering a field of expertise you almost certainly didn’t train for. Fortunately, there’s plenty of help out there for the uninitiated. A Non-Exec or Chairman with a track record in this arena can be invaluable, especially when you have to start talking to the accountants, lawyers and the taxman! Expertise and trust are watchwords at this juncture but given you’ve been honest with yourself in building a world-class team, this should be an instinctive piece of cake. So there you have it. The ramblings of a man who’s living the dream of building something of worth and being able to step aside to let it prosper without him. Undoubtedly one of my proudest achievements.

To find out more, or indeed to engage with the amazing team that has made my transition so easy, get in touch with Chris or Julie at Good. They’ll be happy to help.

And finally, if you're interested have a read on Chris thoughts on Good's recent management changes.