What are the challenges of succession planning for independent media owners? In the early days of growth, founders make every decision and touch every customer. But as your team grows beyond single figures and your revenues move comfortably into seven figures, you need a succession plan to continue that growth, even if you are some years away from planning an exit.
I have worked with several independent media owners navigating this transition. Below are some issues to consider if you are making a succession plan. It can feel like an emotional wrench for a founder to extricate themselves from the day to day, but the results are always worthwhile. Being able to take one step back from the business means you can really start strategic planning for growth.
The Founder problem
Media businesses are often built around the knowledge, charisma, energy, and contact book of one individual. But this strength can also contain the seeds of a long term problem. If all the major clients and influential people in the audience are personal contacts of the founder, you will hit a ceiling on growth. And if one person takes all the strategic decisions then, just occasionally, they may make a bad call.
Set up processes
Founders may source the speakers for an event, interview opinion formers for the lead story and negotiate with premium sponsors. But unless they start to write down exactly how they do this and what they say, it will never be possible to delegate tasks to their senior team, let alone a new hire. It sounds tiresome to create a manual or a playbook for the perfect event, sponsorship deal or subscription package. But it is the key to set a founder free from the daily grind.
Hire and delegate
Once you have a clearer view of what needs to be done and how it should be done, you can delegate some tasks to your current team, and identify where there are skills gaps. These can be filled in inventive ways – no need for office based full-time employees. Maybe there is a freelance or contractor who could support your marketing part time. Or you could bring in a remote worker for a telesales or technical role. Once you have the team you need, brief them on their new responsibilities and do your best to stay back, monitoring KPIs and not micromanaging.
Invest in team development
Once the entire success of the business is no longer dependent on the founder, you need to invest in the skills of your senior team. They become part of the value in the business, and if they are happy and productive, they will deliver for you and any future owner. Set up an effective recruitment and appraisal process to allow for continued growth.
If your exit is some years off, you don’t want your key staff leaving after you have invested in their skills and set up the processes in the business. So consider ways to provide them with a stake in the business – this could be a share scheme, or simply a companywide profit share.
Regular board meetings
Many entrepreneurs have an aversion to board meetings, possibly following a corporate career, but they can serve several purposes in a smaller organisation. They enable your senior team to learn more about the whole business, not just their specialism, and practice assessing risks and taking strategic decisions. This upgrades their skills and provides you with a chance to identify a future MD or COO. A Board meeting is also an opportunity to review risks and monitor KPIs. You may even choose to bring in an independent NED to provide some constructive challenge to you and your directors.
Being a founder of a small independent media business can be exhausting, if all decisions are yours alone and every client has you on speed dial. The end result of setting up processes, developing your senior team, delegating, and hiring in new skills can be quite liberating. The business will run more smoothly and it frees up your time to spot new opportunities. Some CEOs have felt they have fallen back in love with their business after going through this process and decide to defer plans to exit.
If you are contemplating succession planning for your media business, do get in touch to fix a confidential chat. I’m happy to share some ideas over a real or virtual coffee.
About the author
Carolyn Morgan has bought, sold, launched and grown specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. A founder of the Specialist Media Show (sold in 2014) she now advises media businesses large and small on their digital strategy through her consultancy Speciall Media.