What's your problem?

I run a delicatessen chain in the north-west. It's a family business, which I took over from my father 15 years ago. Over the past two years the firm has grown considerably and I'm now starting to think of getting another person in to help me at a strategic level, with an eye on grooming them for succession.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

My 22-year-old son has always expressed an interest in taking over from me but - I'm loath to say this - I really don't think he's up to the job. How do I let him down gently?

Given that you yourself took over from your father, I suppose your son's sense of expectation is understandable - but I do hope you haven't given him even tacit encouragement. It's this phrase ‘let him down lightly' that worries me. He really shouldn't have been up there in the first place. Even if you rated him more highly than you do, he's far too inexperienced at 22 to be formally marked out for succession. And anyway, you've only been running the joint for 15 years: it seems a bit premature to start identifying a crown prince. I know succession planning is supposed to be a central part of good corporate governance but if you mark out someone too early and then keep them waiting in the wings for years it can have a stultifying effect on the whole business - not least on the anointed one. As far as your son is concerned, much the best bet would be for him to embark on a career somewhere else altogether - though maybe in a related trade. He needs to prove to himself - and indeed, to others - that he can make his own way without the ever-present suspicion that he owes almost everything to being Daddy's boy. By making this suggestion to him, you're clearly challenging any hopes he may harbour of early preferment, but doing it in a confident and positive way. And, of course, if he were ever to return to your business, a successful stint elsewhere would make his re-entry a great deal more acceptable to the rest of your staff. By all means take on someone senior to help you at a strategic level - but be sure you don't dangle the prospect of succession in front of them as part of the deal. It's far too soon to commit yourself and anyway, you shouldn't need to.

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