If there’s one trait that is not normally associated with entrepreneurs and family-business owners, it’s procrastination. After all, practically every element of their lives, from the flourishing company and well-managed assets to the high-responsibility direction of hundreds or thousands of employees, testifies to the fact that they not only know how to get things done but are proactive to a degree far beyond the average.

However, when it comes to the succession of their business, especially the transfer of power to the next generation, the majority of family-business owners put off the steps necessary to plan ahead.

The numbers speak for themselves. As of 2019, only 33% of North American family businesses [1] had any kind of succession plan for transferring power when the current head retires or dies. Further, most of those plans were largely lip-service to the idea: only 23% [2] were clearly documented and up to date.

It’s fair to say that most family-business owners are not actually procrastinators or else they almost certainly wouldn’t be able to build a successful business. It’s also clear, though, that when it comes to succession planning, many of them do procrastinate. So what’s going on?

The Emotion Quotient in Procrastination

Part of the answer may lie in a growing body of research suggesting that procrastination is not about time management or work ethic, but, rather, about emotional management [3]. As lead procrastination researchers Fuschia Sirois and Timothy Pychyl explain it, putting things off has  “a great deal to do with short‐term mood repair and emotion regulation.” [4] People procrastinate, Sirois and Pychyl say, because they believe that either doing the task at hand or having finished it will cause an uncomfortable set of feelings.

In this light, even people who are not usually procrastinators can be capable of serious delay tactics on certain tasks if they are sufficiently averse to the feelings that the tasks might create.

The question then becomes, What real or potential feeling could make successful family-business owners so intensely uncomfortable that many of them will jeopardize their businesses, their legacies, and even their family members’ best interests to avoid it, by failing to plan for the future?

In a word, fear.

Many experts believe [5] that the main mechanism behind family-business owners’ reluctance to engage with succession planning is a fear-based desire to avoid what could be on the other side of such plans. This includes

  • Loss of control and power
  • Loss of status and identity
  • Relinquishment of the enterprise into which they have poured their life’s passion
  • Painful family dynamics
  • Old age, incapacity, and death

Arguably, it is this psychology that keeps the rates of failure stubbornly high [6] when it comes to such future-oriented tasks as succession planning.

Ways to Conquer Procrastination

The good news about understanding the emotional reasons for putting off important future-management tasks is that it allows the right kinds of measures to be taken. Here are some ways that family-business leaders can begin to move past their psychological roadblocks:

  • Acknowledge the issue and its importance. Awareness of the problem is the first step to solving it. Business leaders often deprioritize “soft” issues such as emotions and relationships; however, when they recognize that avoiding uncomfortable feelings could be putting their business, legacy, and family at risk, they are more likely to take the issue seriously and start examining why they are putting off future-planning tasks.
  • Practise mindfulness. Research shows that mindful meditation [7] is associated with low rates of procrastination—and, conversely, low mindfulness is strongly correlated with the tendency to put things off. Increasing presence of mind helps people accept and ride out even the most intense negative feelings.
  • Improve psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility means exactly what it sounds like [8]: a person’s ability to adapt to new realities, shift her or his mindset when necessary, and follow through with behaviour that lines up with values and priorities even when it triggers negative feelings. A type of therapy called Acceptance Commitment Therapy [9] (ACT) has been shown to be particularly helpful in making thinking patterns less rigid.
  • Bring in third parties. Feeling accountable to others [10], such as family-business advisors, business therapists, or independent members on the board of directors, can push family-business leaders past their avoidance-based procrastination by leaving them with no other choice. When they make a real commitment—verbally and on paper—to get their future-planning affairs in order, they are much more likely follow through.
  • Take that first step. Procrastination researcher Pychyl says, “Our research and lived experience show very clearly that once we get started, we’re typically able to keep going. Getting started is everything.”

Many business leaders say that they are daunted by the prospect of starting to plan for succession and would be more likely to take the first step if they had expert guidance and support. Building a network of trusted advisers is therefore a vital early move in approaching succession planning. That’s where the team from The Targeted Strategies Group can help. For over 20 years, we have supported business owners to protect the business that they have worked so hard to build.

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[1] https://home.kpmg/xx/en/blogs/home/posts/2020/09/navigating-the-future-of-family-business.html
[2] https://www.pwc.com/us/en/industries/private-company-services/family-business/business-transition-and-succession-planning.html
[3] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/spc3.12011
[4] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/spc3.12011
[5] https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=ee86b3da-96a1-4adb-b150-4a915f5706f9
[6] https://www.pwc.com/ca/en/private-company/family-business/global-family-business-survey-canada-2016-legacy.html
[7] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10942-012-0151-y
[8] https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/insight-therapy/201909/psychological-flexibility-core-mental-health-asset
[9] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07448481.2018.1484361
[10] https://hbr.org/1976/07/transferring-power-in-the-family-business