Saturday, September 17, 2011

Leadership Transitions and the Parable of the Pitcher

Well, here in the United States baseball is beginning to get interesting. Teams are clinching playoff spots and "normal" people are finally beginning to watch baseball. As I watched a game a while back I noticed something that made me reflect on how the game of baseball approaches pitching changes and how different that is from how family businesses approach leadership changes. Let me explain.

In baseball the pitcher on any Major League team is well paid and usually has an ego the size of his paycheck. The confidence of one of these talented athletes would not allow them to make a good decision on behalf of the team if they had to choose for themselves when to go in and when to come out of the game. If you've ever watched baseball you will attest to the fact that every pitcher that is "removed" from the game and replaced by a reliever isn't exactly thrilled to leave the game, even if they pitched magically. Most leave the mound with their head down, reluctantly handing the ball to the pitching coach and then head to the dugout.

In family business it is assumed that the top leader knows when it is time to "bring in the reliever." It is assumed that they know themselves well enough to know when someone else would be better equipped to help the team get the victory. As we all know, this isn't always the case.

Unlike pitchers, family business leaders sometimes lack any accountability and oftentimes don't receive feedback in a completely honest way. The next generation leader that is waiting in the wings certainly doesn't "approach the mound and send the old man to the bench." Leadership succession in family business is a challenge and timing of the transition is almost always the most difficult question to answer.

In baseball the timing of a pitching transition is crucial. Here are some of the reasons pitching changes take place:
1) Pitcher is losing velocity
2) Pitcher is having trouble locating the strike zone
3) Pitcher isn't well suited to face the next batter
4) The relief pitcher is more talented or able in a certain situation

These same reasons might apply in family business. When a business owner starts to slow, while the business needs someone that is willing to step on the accelerator. When a business owner makes several decisions(personal or professional) that put the business or family in danger. When the business owner isn't suited to tackle the next generation of business challenges. Lastly, in a family business there may be a next generation leader that needs to be elevated so that they can lead the business with new energy and vision. They may be better suited to take the business where it needs to go.

So the question is, where can a family business get a "pitching coach?" If that question was easy to answer more families would have done it already. One of the answers is to have a highly talented and engaged Advisory Board. This group will see the big picture for the business and the family and will be in a good position to give honest and sometimes unpopular advice.

When it comes to leadership transitions in family business, reflect on the Parable of the Pitcher and then appreciate why the transition is difficult. It isn't the "pitcher's" fault that they don't want to come out. Standing on the mound and just continuing to throw is sometimes all they know how to do. Be patient and make sure to prepare your bullpen for when they are called into service.

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