Fossilised Leaders

“Fossilisation” is the process of rusting in place in a business leadership role, by becoming more averse to change and innovation.  It’s usually caused by age.

We are living longer, working longer and, despite having to deal with a global pandemic, we expect to do far more in our lives than ever before. This encourages many people to tear up the old retirement rule book, and remain active in their work, or at least in some form of work, until they choose not to be.

The desire, or need to work in a family business into later years, when done by way of “entrenching action”, creates challenges, that can grow into problems, that may ultimately lead both the family and the business into violent conflict.

The primary issue is the disappearance of the succession pipeline that promised the anointed heir they would gain the top job at a reasonable age – much to the chagrin of ambitious successors, and anxious employees looking for a more modern vision for the business.

When the game is changed unilaterally by current business leaders, in breach of promises that encouraged nominated successors to flog their guts out in the family business for many years, conflict invariably breaks out within the family and key employees start looking for alternative employment.  They fear getting embroiled in family conflict and have to look out for the wellbeing of their own families.

In any business, when senior people stay on well past their use-by dates, there’s a real danger they’ll fossilise on the job and discourage innovation initiatives – for no better reason than that they’ve become increasingly conservative as a result of advancing years.

Fossilisation is typically seen in business leaders somewhere around the 70-year-old mark.  It starts sooner in some, and may never touch those precious few whose thought processes, like fine wines, continue to improve with age.  The challenge in spotting fossilisation is that there’s no apparent reduction in mental acuity, or commercial toughness.  It’s subtler than that: less agility, more risk aversion, shorter strategic horizons, and active opposition to change.

Generally, thought processes seem to flat line in septuagenarians.  Great authors become less “interesting”; large professional firms enforce compulsory retirement around age 60 (mainly to keep their young Turks hungry), though they allow good people to be re-hired as consultants.  Judges are obliged to retire at 70, to protect the capacity of the bench, although monarchs and politicians (who make the rules) allow themselves to go on forever.  The US President being a case in point.

There’s a well-worn adage: any business that’s standing still is effectively going backwards, relative to its competitors.  If the culture of a business reflects its leader, and the leader is fossilised, get your shares out of that business, quickly!

Solution

Don’t leave this to chance.  Age changes attitudes, and emotional needs (conscious or otherwise) defeat logic and drive actions.  Setting up early to avoid the risk of fossilisation is a great encouragement and aid to good succession planning.

Create certainty around business continuity and career opportunities by having formal job descriptions for all senior roles (including Owners, Emperors, and Dictators).  They should all include definitive end of work dates.  If appropriate and desirable, individuals (especially business owners and family members) can continue to work in a different capacity that doesn’t block up executive leadership opportunities (eg: special projects, and/or move from operational management to board positions concerned only with governance, strategy, supervision and risk).

Provide frequent opportunities for assessing the quality of strategic thinking in the leadership team by holding regular business development and project meetings.  It should be readily apparent if somebody’s strategic skills and insights are diminishing, because they’ll display consistent opposition to sensible suggestions for changes and improvements.

Commence the process of transitioning leaders out of operational management early enough to get them ready, willing and eager to move on when the agreed time comes.  You may need to help them build a new “rock” to inhabit, where they’ll enjoy their re-fired lifestyle, after they depart their old rock.

Fundamental change is always challenging, especially when it involves casting adrift from the major defining element of a person’s lengthy working life.  Psychologists tell us that most people prefer to put up with known pain rather than make unknown and untested changes to their lives that could relieve their pain.

Anticipate Fossilisation, reduce the stigma by characterising it as a natural and inevitable part of the cycle of family business sustainability.  It is personal, and it’s very real.  Deal with it.

Long term sustainability requires conscious choices to be made for the benefit of the family and the business.  It all works so much better when leaders want to do what everyone else wants them to do.  That requires a considered process, not a crisis event.

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