Sep 23, 2019 | Leadership

HBO’s new drama, Succession, about an aging media tycoon’s struggle with turning over stewardship of his empire is part Rupert Murdoch case study and part King Lear. The CEO-cum-founder’s inability to pass the reins is an all too common leadership transition facing today’s enterprises.

I recently met for an initial coaching session with the Founder/CEO of a mental healthcare provider based in the U.K. and his successor-in-waiting who was the newly appointed COO. I had been coaching the CEO for over a year and knew that he was passionate about preserving the culture he had worked so hard to build since launching the agency 12 years ago. I also knew that he had no board of directors to help guide the transition, making the need to get him comfortable with truly letting go all the more tenuous. Over the course of our meeting, I facilitated a discussion between the CEO and COO around two thematic areas: context and trust.


1. The origin story.

The CEO had grown up in Zimbabwe. He had watched his beloved grandmother slowly deteriorate from dementia. The family did their best to meet her needs, but her young grandson felt that his family should have had access to trained mental healthcare clinicians to respectfully support her as she declined. As soon as he graduated from high school, he set about righting that wrong. He moved to England and earned a license to practice mental healthcare. But the agencies that he worked for fell far short of his expectations. So, he started his own agency ingrained with the passion to provide mental health services through staff who would treat every patient as if caring for his or her own grandmother.

I asked the COO to share her version of the agency’s origin story and how the story may have resonated with her personally and professionally. Her version of the story was spot on, and she went on to share how she had a very similar experience as a child with her own “nan”. We discussed the importance of using the origin story as a basis for shifting the culture from founder-led to founder-inspired.

2. The values. 

I then asked the COO to list the agency’s core values and her understanding of how those values played out in practice. She listed each of the three values — family, quality and honesty — and shared her discussions with staff about what the values look like in action. She noted that honesty was the most difficult for the team to define. I invited the CEO to share why honesty was included in the values list to give the COO the framework needed to develop a working definition with the staff.

3. The growth story. 

Pivoting to the CEO, I asked him to highlight the business decisions he had made over the company’s 12-year history to scale the agency. I wanted the COO to grasp his risk tolerance, learn who he had leaned on to make big decisions, and discuss the opportunities and challenges he felt would impact the agency’s ability to sustain its growth. After he shared the highlights, I suggested that the two of them carve out time to review the growth story again. I recommended focusing on the 2016 decision to diversify, whether that decision was yielding the forecasted return, and, if so, what kind of attention the new business units needed to thrive.

4. The sacred cows. 

Next, I explored the amount of discretion that the COO had to take action. Could she fire an employee for performance or cause with impunity, or were some team members safe from being fired? Could she challenge assumptions about the processes, places and products/services, or were there bounds that she needed to be aware of? The CEO’s initial response was vague. “If I am satisfied that she has taken the time to build relationships with each employee,” he said, “I am okay with her taking action at her discretion.” I recommended that he take time to consider the question more deeply and provide a more objective response when he had more clarity.


Under the theme of trust, I recommended that the pair work together to get clear about the following:

Division of duties/power. What does success look like, and when will the CEO shift from coaching to mentoring the COO?

Division of loyalties. How will the COO respond when employees say that the CEO would not agree with her decisions/suggestions/statements?

Division of access. How will the CEO respond when employees try to end run around the COO?

If you’ve ever experienced a thriving founder-led company you’ll know that the person who started it has a special and unique relationship with the company. It runs much deeper than their formal CEO job title and responsibilities. Stepping into the role of a Founder/CEO is not a discrete event. It’s a process that requires repeated discussions to clarify and codify expectations, build trust, and confidently pass the baton.

Question: How would you give up control of a thriving organization you built from the ground up?

Driven by the premise that excellence is the result of aligning people, purpose and performance, Center for Executive Excellence facilitates training in leading self, leading teams and leading organizations. To learn more, subscribe to receive CEE News



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