Here’s a scenario we see all the time:

Uncle Steve chooses nephew Mark to take over the company in a few years. As the former grooms the latter, he comes to a new conclusion: Mark is not cut out for the job.

At this point, Steve has a precarious road to walk. He knows he can’t go through with Mark’s succession, but he’s not sure how to break the news. There are at least three ways the relationship could evolve from here, depending on why Steve has changed his mind:

  1. Mark may not be ready today, but he could be ready tomorrow. Through an intentional process, Steve may be able to develop his nephew to eventually take over the company (much) farther down the road.
  2. Mark is just not cut out for the top spot, nor will he ever be. Even so, he might continue to serve as a vital resource in the company.
  3. Mark is no longer a good fit for the company. Either because of discontentment or incompetence, his days are numbered.

Situations like these are often fraught. What we’ve learned, however, is that the complexities here can only be dealt with through open, transparent dialogue.

If the conversation doesn’t happen at all—i.e., you pull the rug out from under your chosen successor—then you can expect plenty of bitterness and resentment. In the unlikely case he or she doesn’t quit, you’ll end up with a permanently disengaged employee who may otherwise have shown immense potential in another role.

Done well, this difficult conversation can accomplish three vital goals:

  1. Respect the dignity and emotions of the passed-over employee.
  2. Maintain the relationship between the employee and the owner.
  3. Create alternative possibilities for that employee to continue with the company.

By the way, if you’re struggling with how to have the conversation and keep the relationship, this step-by-step guide from a psychologist could help. Check it out.


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