Succession planning. Those two simple words stir up a lot of feelings in our industry. According to trade surveys, no issue worries greenhouse and nursery owners more. If you’re like many of your peers, you’ve invested your life—and your family’s—in building a business you’re proud of. It’s only natural that choosing its next leader weighs heavily on your mind. Even so, those surveys say there’s a good chance you’re still at square one.
You might have noticed that the words “succession” and “success” look a lot alike. Take that to heart; this is a task you don’t want to leave undone. A fresh perspective can help overcome mental hurdles. Rather than thinking in terms of succession planning, think of preparing your business and your successor instead. These tips for “succession preparation” can help propel your plans for success ahead:
1. Start now. Business consultants make their living from succession planning say the best time to start is before you have specific plans to leave. For many of you, five or six years ago would have been ideal. That doesn’t mean it’s too late. But it does mean you don’t want to put this off.
Preparing your business for long-term success goes beyond identifying your successor. It involves getting your financials in tip-top shape, streamlining your SOPs, fortifying the company culture you’ve nurtured, and seeking insight from advisors you respect most.
It also means developing an entire generation of leaders, from CEO to customer service and sales, for new roles. And you’ll need to prep family members, vendors, and customers, too. That takes time. By starting now, you help ensure your business has the strength and stability to succeed long after you’re gone.
2. Expand your horizions. Looking beyond family members can be tough when your nursery or greenhouse is family-owned and operated—whether that’s been for one generation or several. But many owners in our industry have discovered that the children they thought would take over have other plans. Others have family who want ownership but either don’t want to lead or don’t have what it takes.
It can help to separate ownership and leadership in your mind when considering what it takes to lead your greenhouse or nursery operation successfully. The earlier you start succession planning, the more clear-headed and less pressured you can be. Allow yourself to think beyond family members working alongside you to family in other lines of business and non-family inside and outside the industry.
Some of the most successful leaders in our industry today came into it as CEOs. Some were called back to run family nurseries and greenhouses from corporate careers in the non-horticulture world. In today’s environment, business skills can mean as much or more than knowing your plants. As you consider family and others, ask yourself honestly: Are they available? Are they willing? Are they qualified?
3. Involve your key staff. When a new leader takes over, much of their success depends on the team that supports them. As you prepare for succession, it’s critical that your team knows your plans—and that you know theirs. By including key staff in meetings and brainstorming sessions about where you’re collectively headed, you can listen, learn, and inform your decision-making process early on.
You may find that the operations manager you envisioned as your successor’s indispensable right-hand may be planning to exit whenever you go. Or they may surprise you with a long-held dream to buy you out and take over the show.
Promoting from within your company can mean a trickle down of open positions, internal applicants, and extra training. That person you assumed would move up to fill a gap may not be interested at all. Someone else may expect an automatic promotion that you didn’t foresee. The earlier you get the big picture, the smoother your transition will be.
4. Explore all options. Even if you hope your business will live on for many more generations, investigating alternatives can make you and your family better prepared for whatever’s ahead. It may not be easy, but separate the personal from the professional. Consider your options and their pros and cons like an outsider looking in.
If you’re sitting on prime real estate, evaluate its worth. Is it time to sell the land and move the business? Is it time to sell the business and keep the land? What about employee ownership? Is that something you and staff should discuss?
Even if your first reaction to all these questions is a resounding ‘no,’ take time to explore them—with an open mind—and think them through. Be crystal clear on why these are or aren’t viable options for the future you anticipate. You owe it to yourself, your family, and the next generation of leadership to understand the choices they’ll face, too.
5. Program your departure. Many leaders chose to cut back gradually before they turn over the reins. Others head straight for the door. Allowing new leaders to phase into their roles can be valuable, so don’t leave the premises too soon. Consider plans to stick around in an advisory role once leadership formally changes hands.
Even if your successor knows the company well, they may need a sounding board and sage advice only you can give. As an onsite advisor, you can provide priceless support for the person you’ve chosen to lead. Your presence and respect can help minimize the adjustment period, instill confidence company wide, and strengthen the bonds between everyone involved.
As part of your plan, establish a firm timetable for your departure—whether that’s a date on the calendar or a company milestone. And when it arrives, know it’s time to let go.
6. Consider customers and vendors. Whenever a change in leadership takes place, employees aren’t the only ones affected. A solid succession plan addresses how to prepare your customers and vendors as well. Consider how and when you’ll present the change to the public, and how you’ll answer their concerns about continuity.
You may choose to tell your customers in a newsletter or email before a press release goes public—so they’re the first to know. For your most valued accounts and industry connections, this is the perfect time to pick up the phone and remind them how much their business and friendship still means.
Take steps to reassure those you do business with that, though you may be gone, your outstanding staff—and possibly some great new talent—will still be on hand to meet their needs. Just as they’ve been part of your success, your customers and vendors should be part of your succession, too.
7. Formalize every detail. Putting all your plans down “on paper” is a step that keeps a lot of people from starting the planning process at all. But getting those informal and formal agreements down in black and white—and making your intentions binding—is the only way to be sure your nursery or greenhouse’s future isn’t left to chance.
Things can change quickly and unexpectedly. You may decide to fast track your plan or it may be needed sooner than you ever thought it would be. And if that happens, the efforts you’ve invested in succession preparation will help your business and your successor make it through.
At ICL, we want to see your business succeed under your leadership and the generation of leadership that comes next. Your success is our success. We’re here to help you grow the very best.