Succession Planning: Are You Willing to Fire Yourself?

Knowing When to Say When

Earl G. Graves Sr., Chairman & Publisher of Black Enterprise

Often when we launch our companies, there is virtually no perceptible difference between what’s best for us as entrepreneurial founders and CEOs and what’s best for our businesses. But as a business becomes established, proves itself in the marketplace, and begins to grow, it begins to take on a life of its own. Eventually, the success and potential of every enterprise is determined by an entrepreneur’s ability to separate his or her own needs and desires from what’s best for the business.

You’ll see a great example in this issue of Black Enterprise, where we tell the story of Darrell S. Freeman, who effectively fired himself in order to hire the CEO he believed could take Zycron Inc., the BE100s information technology company he founded, to new levels of growth. An even more powerful example shook the world as we were putting the finishing touches on this issue. Icon Steve Jobs–all but synonymous with Apple, the company he co-founded and led–spent years developing talent and establishing a culture to allow his business to thrive even as he was waging a battle against pancreatic cancer. When disease finally claimed him, Apple continued without missing a beat, introducing the iPhone 4S even as it joined the world in mourning its visionary founder. In fact, that Apple thrives could be the ultimate tribute to Jobs as an entrepreneur.

It takes courage and brutal honesty with yourself to replace yourself as CEO, and even more so to take the steps necessary to ensure that the company you founded will thrive beyond your own lifetime. However, it is our responsibility as business owners to know when to say when, and even more important, to act.

I have personally faced this test of business leadership since launching Black Enterprise as a single-magazine publishing company in 1970. More than 40 years later, the Black Enterprise of today is a totally transformed and still evolving multimedia business, with digital platforms, television shows, and live events added to and integrated with the original print business.

When a business evolves, the founders must evolve, too. You must anticipate that evolution and act accordingly. In the earlier years of Black Enterprise, that meant I had to acquire new skill sets as the business took root, as well as hire and delegate authority to qualified professionals in areas of expertise I neither had nor had a passion for acquiring. As the company began to expand into new areas, it meant building a more diverse management team and operational structure for the company, as well as grooming talent and creating a succession plan. Eventually, it meant replacing myself as CEO, as I did when I named my eldest son, Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., to that position.

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