Best-laid plans

Succession planning plays vital role in organizational health

Posted on Jun 1, 2021 :: Insight Insider
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that there’s little in life we can take for granted, and businesses and leaders with strong plans in place will fare better than those without.

Succession planning can transpire in ways both predictable and unexpected, and companies need to be prepared for either scenario. Take, for example, Plymouth Foam, which found itself reeling after a 2005 plane crash claimed the lives of the company’s two owners, Scott and Vance Roberts, and Vice President Mike Borzcik. Eventually, the manufacturer found its footing under the leadership of now-President and CEO David Bolland, but the situation turned Bolland into an evangelist for planning for the unexpected.  

“It really just showed the importance of being transparent. That’s reflected in where we are today because I don’t think there’s anything that I know or hold that somebody else here doesn’t know about,” Bolland said in the October 2020 Insight cover story featuring him and Plymouth Foam.

Forty percent of owners have no plans in place to cover circumstances such as illness, death or forced exit, says Lisa Horn, leader, owner transition advisory for CLA, and a Certified Exit Planning Advisor. While she acknowledges these can be uncomfortable topics to confront, it’s vital to do so, as owners and leaders have many stakeholders who are counting on them.

“Business owners need to have a plan in place to cover the business,” she says. “You want to have plans in place so you’re in control of all outcomes, and outcomes do not control you.”

A continuous process

The past year has brought leadership changes at several high-profile Northeast Wisconsin organizations, including Oshkosh Corp., Lakeside Foods, Associated Bank, United Way Fox Cities and Fox Valley Technical College — all planned transitions.

Under the best circumstances, succession planning happens continuously, a process that reduces risk for organizations. Proper planning gives leaders, their families, co-owners and employees peace of mind, Horn says.

Dave Kievet, president and chief operating officer of The Boldt Co., says a somber occasion — the death of the company’s long-time leader Oscar C. Boldt at the age of 96 in June 2020 — put the spotlight back on the topic of succession planning for the company.

“He certainly left a lot for us to ponder about and follow in his footsteps, so he set a good example as we go forward,” Kievet says of the revered company and community leader who remained active in The Boldt Co. until the time of his death.

The construction company began focusing more heavily on succession several years ago when Oscar Boldt stepped down as chairman of the board and his son, Tom Boldt, became chairman and CEO, as well as when Bob DeKoch transitioned from his role as president of the company to board member, with Kievet taking over the president role.

The Boldt Co. has appointed many new high-level leaders within the past several months. As it did so, it went through an exhaustive review of the talent within the organization, systematically analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of all candidates.

Kievet says when the company assesses candidates, it’s looking for those who embody the virtues the company espouses — humble, hungry and smart. It’s seeking servant leaders who will grow the business and who have emotional intelligence that allows them to understand other people.

When a company is as large as The Boldt Co., which employs around 2,000 people nationwide, succession planning affects leadership and positions at all levels of the business. It’s a process that begins with looking at career paths and showing people what might be possible for their future. Done well, it brings in new energy and motivates people to keep progressing in their careers.

“By continuing to move people up in the organization, you continue to provide opportunities for everybody,” Kievet says.

In January, Lakeside Foods, a Manitowoc-based producer of canned and frozen vegetables, announced the retirement of its President and CEO Glen Tellock. Joe Yanda, whose great-grandfather helped start the company and who previously served as chief operating officer, took over as president and CEO in May.

Tracy Pleus, vice president of human resources for Lakeside, says succession planning is an ongoing process at the company. “It’s good for companies to be developing talent and evaluating them against future roles all the time,” she says.

When the transition involves a company leader, focused preparation should begin as soon as the company knows that person may be planning to leave, Pleus says. Choosing a new leader is a process that can take a couple of years and includes identifying what characteristics a successor needs to bring to the role, and once chosen, grooming that individual to take over leadership. 

Whether a new leader brings an outside perspective like Tellock did when he joined Lakeside after a long tenure at The Manitowoc Co., or the leader comes from within the company like Yanda did, employees and other stakeholders will need time to adjust. Pleus says it’s vital to effectively communicate the change to both employees and customers and to be prepared to answer questions.

“I think the challenge, with either case, is just acclimating to a new leader, to a new style, to a new cadence. Everybody is finding their way a bit,” Pleus says.

Easing the way

Sharon Hulce, president and CEO of Employment Resource Group, says when a leader is transitioning, it’s best to start the succession process at least three years out. Her company helps guide a knowledge transfer that involves identifying the leader’s yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly responsibilities. After that, the company may interview and assess people within the organization who could be successors or look for someone outside the organization.

Often, the knowledge transfer piece is more straightforward than the emotional aspects of leaving a role, Hulce says. “People get very attached to their roles, especially if they’ve been in them a long period of time, and we’ve got to hand-hold through that.”

Horn agrees. CLA’s owner transition services team develops personalized plans that guide companies and leaders through the logistics as well as the emotional aspects of succession planning. Helping leaders determine what they want to do during their “third act,” whether it’s taking up a hobby, traveling, volunteering or doing board work, can help ease the anxieties of transitioning, she says.

Hulce and her team try to take the emotion out of the experience of transitioning and reassure the exiting leader that they’ll find someone who will do an excellent job and continue to take care of customers. They aim to create a seamless process that leaves everyone feeling valued and honored.

If successful, leadership transitions can bring positives to all involved. “If it’s done well, you can not only get the new person excited, you can also rejuvenate the long-tenured (workers),” Hulce says. 

Search underway for new Fox Valley Tech leader

When the search for a successor involves a public institution, as is the case with Fox Valley Technical College and its retiring president, Dr. Susan May, the process becomes even more involved.

Patty Van Ryzin, vice president of Bassett Mechanical and chair of FVTC’s board of trustees, says the biggest difference with this type of a search is that the college’s board of trustees is tasked with hiring the president versus an internal group or leadership team driving the process.

The FVTC board chose to lead the search on its own and began with surveying stakeholders including staff members, business partners and student government groups, all with the goal of identifying important leadership attributes and types of experiences the next president should bring.

“Dr. May has been our president for 13 years. She’s done an amazing job and (leaves) big shoes to fill. But as we’re looking forward, is there anything different we need? It’s a good time to ask that,”  Van Ryzin says.

The feedback the board received showed consensus on desired leadership traits, including effective communication, especially during a crisis such as COVID-19, a focus on students and customers, adaptability, and the ability to hire high-caliber faculty and staff.

The board is conducting a national search for May’s successor as well as looking at internal candidates. It plans to keep narrowing the search until it gets down to the final two to four candidates. The final candidates will participate in a full day of tours, meetings with stakeholders and students, and a public forum in which community members can dial in and meet the candidates. The day culminates with an interview with the board, which will choose the next president. 

FVTC plans to select its new leader by the end of June, with an Aug. 1 start date.