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Strategies for handling a Family Business Unicorn.

The Family Business Unicorn

The term "Unicorn" describes an executive whose contributions are both uniquely invaluable and, upon their exit, uniquely irreplaceable. This concept, while highlighting a remarkable asset, simultaneously unveils a strategic vulnerability within family businesses: reliance on such indispensable talents without adequate succession planning is a scenario fraught with both operational and emotional risk.

Traits of a Family Business Unicorn:

  1. Legacy Employees: Unicorns can be family or non-family employees anywhere in the org chart, but their value requires tenure.

  2. Creation, Not Discovery: Unicorns are not hired; they are developed as they adapt to the ambiguities and nuances of a given family and their business operations.

  3. Impactful Presence, Painful Absence: The duality of a Unicorn's value—immense in their presence, painful in their absence—calls for a strategic approach to mitigate the risks associated with their eventual departure.


The Double Edged sword of Unicorns

Unicorns, who may be founders, family, or non-family executives (NFEs), are pivotal to the family business, fostering innovation, leadership, and growth. However, their irreplaceability presents a unique challenge.

The issue emerges when these exceptional individuals are used as benchmarks for success, leading to unrealistic expectations for their successors. This sets an impractical standard, often culminating in disappointment.

Many family businesses pride themselves on loyalty, which, while fostering a culture of trust, inadvertently creates a vulnerability when it comes to replacing such indispensable figures. The truth is, every individual will leave at some point, exposing the business to the risks associated with losing a unicorn's singular contributions.


The Strategic Implications of Unicorns: Navigating Succession and Sustainability

The departure of a Unicorn from a family business is not merely a transitional challenge; it is a strategic inflection point. It brings to the forefront the critical issue of dependency on singular talents and the often-overlooked need for comprehensive succession planning. This oversight can result in significant financial strain, operational disruptions, and emotional discord within the family and the business at large.

To prevent the complexities introduced by the exit of these pivotal individuals, family businesses must embrace proactive and strategic talent management approaches:

  • Robust Governance and Strategic Clarity: Implementing clear governance structures and strategic planning is crucial for delineating authority and ensuring accountability, which forms the bedrock for sustainable talent development and succession planning​​​​.

  • Role Clarity: Defining roles, responsibilities and requirements will bring clarity to the value each person brings to your company.

  • Open Communication and Engagement: Fostering a culture of open communication and active engagement is essential for aligning individual aspirations with business objectives.

  • Comprehensive Succession Planning: Developing clear succession and development plans ensures the continuity of the business's legacy and mitigates the risks associated with the departure of key talent​​​​.

  • Meritocratic Culture: Promoting a culture that values performance and merit over tenure or lineage encourages a sustainable environment.

Addressing the Exit of a Unicorn

When a critical 'unicorn' is exiting the business, the organization faces a crucial test of its resilience and adaptability. The following steps can help mitigate the impact:

  • Immediate Assessment of Impact: Quickly evaluate the potential impact on critical projects, client relationships, and internal workflows to prioritize areas needing immediate attention.

  • Map & Redefine: Map by defining and categorizing the value that the exiting executive has brought to each element of your business. Once mapping is complete, redefine the role with a set of responsibilities that a new person can fill.

  • Recruitment and Development: Begin the executive search for a successor who not only fits the technical requirements of the role but also aligns with the company's culture and values. Simultaneously, invest in developing internal talent to create a pipeline of potential future leaders.

  • Reflect and Learn: Use this transition as an opportunity to reflect on the organization's reliance on individual talents and reinforce the importance of collective leadership, robust succession planning, and fostering a culture of continuous development.

By acknowledging the dual nature of unicorns within family businesses, leaders can navigate the vulnerabilities associated with their departure more effectively, ensuring that the legacy and future of the business remain secure.


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