Unlocking the black box of business succession

the transformation of a business advisory practice through the lived experience of the principal, the accretion of practical wisdom, and the grounding of practice in Heideggerian and Aristotelian philosophy

William Hovey, Steven Segal

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


In this paper we situate philosophy in practice. We will describe the in-practice transformation of a consulting firm and its advisory practices. The firm consults to family-owned and privately-owned Australian businesses in relation to their business succession. Business succession is the transfer of the management and/ or control of a business (Ip & Jacobs, 2006). It sees "the passing of the leadership baton from the founder-owner to a successor who will either be a family member or a non-family member; that is, a 'professional manager'" (Beckhard & Burke, 1983, p. 3). Global estimates of the number of family-owned and privately-owned businesses is between 80% and 98% of all enterprises (Poza, 2010). The relationship between wealth-creation and economic and industrial capacity, combined with the ageing of baby boomer business owners, underpins the importance of business succession. Whilst succession in these businesses is discussed in the literatures of entrepreneurship and of business strategy, they are represented primarily in the literature of family business which is now regarded as a legitimate field of enquiry (Barrett & Dunemann, 2004; Handler, 1994; Ip & Jacobs, 2006), and a discipline in its own right. Much of the dominant succession literature has been centered on the "process": its rationale, domains of influence (e.g., economics, firm performance, psychology, etc), implications, and consequences. The literature has spawned a range of linear, instrumental succession models which implicitly or explicitly have been adapted to in-practice use by practitioners including lawyers, accountants and financial planners whose practice is grounded in scientific principles. This prompts the view expressed by Schön that these "practitioners are instrumental problem solvers who select technical means best suited to technical purposes" (1987, p. 3). Their practice is discipline-based, instrumental, and brings a necessary mechanical framework to the matter of succession. However, this instrumental approach does nothing to solve an important puzzle: Why does it seem the majority of owners does not engage in or recognize the need to do something about their succession?" Glassop et al (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) note the importance of this issue and also observe that a spike in owners' succession awareness is followed by a decline. This may delay their engagement with their succession. And, it also means that there is a risk is that disengaged owners will either have a flawed succession - or none at all. Writing from the perspective of practice, we suggest that the positivist, instrumental model, and the narrow horizon of its practitioners, is neither appealing to nor working for many stakeholders. It is limited in that it deals primarily with the mechanics of succession rather than the purposive act of and commitment required by succession. Succession requires what Heidegger calls the "resolve" of choice. We ask: Could the solution to the puzzle be found outside the boundaries of instrumentalism?" In our answer, we speak to the frustration which emerged within the consulting firm as a result of its dual dilemma: the puzzle of disengagement, and what Heidegger (1953, 2010) might have described as the "unusability" of the extant instrumental models. Further, we recognize the pract1tioner's dilemma described by Schön: "the problems of real-world practice do not present themselves to practitioners as well-formed structures. Indeed, they tend not to present themselves as problems at all but as messy indeterminate situations". Schön's "messy indeterminate situations" might as easily describe much of the problem of business succession. Business succession is more than a technical process of transferring resources. It is a "black box" of complexity. It is an emotional phenomenon which involves the transfer of implicit meanings, of ways of doing things, and of corporate memory. An understanding of this phenomenon requires more than simply a transactional, instrumental approach. Rather it requires one that is concerned with the passing on of a legacy which embraces meaning for the owner. In fact, central to successful succession on the part of the owner is the existential experience of creating and passing on a legacy. This is not always appreciated in transactional, instrumental models where succession is seen simply as a handover of control and influence or of an exchange of resources for cash. We follow Schön in suggesting that an instrumental approach in practice is bounded by the narrow horizon defined by the technical disciplines of its practitioners. Narrowed horizons may hinder the succession transition because they limit the view of the practitioner. As a result, they can fail to take into account the complexities and nuances of the human experience of succession. This experience is often loaded with emotion, doubt, and a lack of trust. That there is a relationship between having a broad horizon and having an understanding of a situation, and then being able to deal with it, was noticed by Gadamer who observed that "to have a horizon" means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it. A person who has an horizon knows the relative significance of everything within this horizon, whether it is near or far, great or small. (Gadamer, 2004, pp. 301-302) We suggest that having a broader horizon in succession practice creates new possibilities for practitioners. This suggestion invites us to consider an alternative to the instrumental. We describe the emergence of an existential model of succession which takes into account the existential notion of leaving a legacy. We make the point that this existential model complements rather than conflicts with the instrumental. The instrumental needs to be situated in the existential or the parts need to be situated in the whole. The co-existence of models speaks to Heidegger's notion of the "referential whole" (1985, p. 187). This implies that the practitioner might look at the whole of what is in front of them in a client business rather than seeing those parts of the "problem" which they have a (disciplinary) preconception to address. This means that in the case of succession, the "referential whole" comprises the instrumental parts and the existential, "human-ness" parts. Following Heidegger, the parts cannot be dealt with in isolation or outside of their "referential relations"(1985, p. 187) with each other. The consulting firm's practice that forms the basis of this study has shifted over time and through moments of disruption to an existential model. It has emerged iteratively through the accumulation of practical wisdom, a process of reflective refinement, and an attunement to the complexities which mark succession in family-and privately-owned firms. In order to address these complexities, we describe an existential model which has been built on a philosophical foundation of Heideggerian existential hermeneutics and Aristotelian phronesis. This existential model provides a framework- but is not prescriptive. Rather, it opens up for practitioners the possibilities to allow their practice to evolve through engagement with the practical wisdom and the moments of disruption which they experience by being "in" practice. An important element of this practical wisdom is that it will have been formed out of the lived experience of practice, including the experiences of disruption followed by practiced-reflection. This combination of disruption and reflection leads to what is described by Heidegger as "deliberation": "The scheme peculiar to [deliberating] is the "if-then"; if this or if that, for instance, is to be produced, put to use, or averted, then some ways and means, circumstances, or opportunities will be needed" (1953, 2010, p. 342) We suggest that the practitioner who uses this model will, have the opportunity, in Aristotelian terms, to make their own shift from "apprentice" to "virtuoso". The emergence in-practice of an existential hermeneutic succession model affords to practitioners a key with which they might unlock the black box of succession which, hitherto, has contained what Schön described as "messy indeterminate situations" and which has been characterized by the disengagement of the majority of business owners from the difficult issues surrounding their succession.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages3
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventPhilosophy of Management Conference (9th : 2014) - Chicago, Illinois, USA
Duration: 14 Jul 201416 Jul 2014


ConferencePhilosophy of Management Conference (9th : 2014)
CityChicago, Illinois, USA

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