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The Art of Releasing Power

Why should founders of companies or executives release power and control when most people are trying to accumulate it? One reason for it is that when a company shifts from conception and inception, to survival and growth, the founder or CEO has to relinquish power at each stage so that others can be equipped to lead and make decisions within their authority. Otherwise, the business will only grow its capacity to the ceiling created by the founder or CEO is not willing to release power and control.

In reality, power is not always easy to release. Using power can morph into an attachment, addiction or an entitlement and in some cases power and control becomes part of the owner’s identity. People integrate power into their identity because of the status, lifestyle, and authority it makes possible.

When power becomes an attachment or entitlement in the workplace, and employees or customers offer ideas and opinions about the company, the suggestions or complaints can sometimes be perceived as a personal affront by the owner. This happens because the organization is a dream they manifested through multiple sacrifices, celebrations, and sometimes painful trials so it is difficult to listen to grievances.

When founders are at a stage in their personal lives where they are ready to release the reigns of their business, what was once a source of excitement and possibility can become the basis for frustration and entrapment in the absence of a succession plan. What is interesting is that even though some of these business owners know they need to release power, they are emotionally, mentally, and physically drained, and their trust in the successor is not at a comfort level so it is not as easy to let go as they thought.

Developing Successors

Some leaders may be in the process of developing a successor. When their commitment is superficial, they appoint someone but they don’t really invest in them or transition power, instead, they overload the person they are supposed to be developing with transactional and urgent work.

Other owners may not identify a successor for development. When this happens, hiring an unknown person when the owner is about to step down from a leadership position, can be a high risk. Not necessarily because the successor cannot lead, it is because the new leader brings habits, beliefs, and assumptions from a different culture so their approach to leadership may or may not be compatible with the existing organizational culture and systems and its future plans.

Founders who identify a successor early on and invest in their leadership, as well as their technical and cultural development, they recognize that their successor will not be a replica of themselves. Instead they seek someone who has the skills and disposition needed to futureproof the organization. They recognize what got the organization to where it is now is not necessarily what is required to take it into the future.

Barriers to Letting Go

When a successor is selected for development, one of the first barriers to overcome is the founder’s perception. The owner or CEO may be consciously or unconsciously seeking someone like themselves using this as the primary criteria for fit and readiness.

When owners and CEOs seek a version of themselves instead of first identifying the skills needed for the role and the future of the company, they are limiting the organization to what was required in the past. This is understandable because owners trust themselves and how they ran the business profitably. They created a formula that worked.

Another potential barrier to transitioning power is culture. If team members are conditioned to view the owner as the only decision maker, if the founder/CEO does not adequately delegate power and authority before or during the handover, it is difficult to convince team members that a transfer of power happened and even though they may seek the successor’s approval on the surface, they sometimes seek informal/final approval from the owner.

There is another barrier to transferring power that can emerge. If coworkers are in a comfort zone when it comes to the distribution or lack of distribution of power they may not be willing to accept changes that threaten the perceived distribution of power. For example, an employee has authority to approve work because the current owner trusts them. The successor may prefer to hold onto authority for that approval process as they don’t have the same trusted relationship. This shifts the power back up the hierarchy and this loss of power can be perceived negatively by the person who no longer has it, leading to resistance to change that impacts the efficacy of the incoming leader.

Another barrier to transferring power happens when the owner insists that they have let go, and perhaps from their perspective they did let go because they changed some of their behaviours, but the new delegation of power and authority was not communicated, the command-and-control system did not visibly change, or the previous CEO is leading and influencing from the margins so employees view the successor as powerless. In other words, while some power was released, it was not enough to shift employees’ perception of the power structure.

A final barrier to releasing power happens when structures and systems are not adequate for operating an organization and the new CEO lacks the technical and leadership competency mix necessary for the owner to trust enough to delegate their power. In other words, there was a hiring error and for multiple reasons the founder is trying to support the new CEO’s success but it is difficult.

How to Release Power

When interviewing CEOs who have released power effortlessly, even those who had multiple challenges along the way, we found that trust is the basis for their release. For some, once they trust the person they are transferring their vision and legacy to, and they are self-aware, they tend to let go of power more seamlessly than those who may not be as self and other-aware. Some of these founders build their trust by considering succession long before they are ready to retire and deliberately work toward meaningfully developing others. They are aware of the cultural norms, systems, and structures that hold the power structure in place so they don’t only address their own power habits, they take time to impact the beliefs and assumptions, systems and structures embedded within the culture.

Some founders who plan for succession have a healthy relationship with power and are aware of how they use it, keeping themselves in line because they know that power is a test of who they truly are. One CEO was of the opinion that some business owners and CEOs can become “hoarders” of their dream or vision and the power they used to bring it to life. This means the pace and quality of the transition of power can be anywhere on the spectrum from a relatively rapid pace to one that is very slow to non-existent.

Trust in the context of releasing power is a function of competence, relationship building, successor development, a proven track record, reliable systems and structures, and results. In best-case scenarios, the transitioning founders and CEOs allow the next in line to discover their unique leadership style, understanding the notion that the right differences can potentially take the organization to the next level.

When transitioning owner from one person to another the shift of power starts within:

  • Whether you are a business owner or CEO, it is natural to feel deeply connected to the business and operating it a certain way. Keep checking yourself for narratives that are causing you to hold onto power that you should release. It is easy to slip into old power patterns so learn to recognize them and commit to releasing control at an appropriate pace. In this way, your team members can grow professionally.

  • Systematically build your trust willingness. If this means investing in your successor for peace of mind, then do so. Even if you are selling your business, trust is important.

  • Address emotions that cause you to hold onto power. Face your fears related to potential risks, judgments, and most importantly, take steps to disentangle the business from your identity.

  • Restructure your work over time so you can release power, authority and your duties according to your plan.

Then work your way outward by:

  • Supporting your successor with building relationships with key stakeholders.

  • Determining the alignment of the core values of your successor with the core values of the business.

  • Delegating authorities to multiple senior team members in an effort to properly balance the power.

You are not the only one releasing power during this process, you are part of an interconnected ecosystem so others will feel the effects of this redistribution of power. For instance, reporting lines can change, decision making authorities may change, and workflows may change. For employees their old power narratives can continue to play out because assumptions and beliefs don’t necessarily change overnight. To start shifting internal narratives, it takes repetition of the new narrative and consistent modeling the new behaviours. Inconsistency holds the old power structure in place firmly.

When releasing power and control, the pace of the person releasing the power is unique to the person and the circumstances. It depends on the culture, the owner’s capacity for or willingness to let go as well as the successor’s capacity to take on more responsibility.

When releasing power, the shift in the balance of power is a process that involves new habit forming, accountability, self- and other-awareness and adaptability. You can take two steps forward, one step back, two steps back and two steps forward. The dance is unpredictable and non-linear, therefore, it takes commitment, courage, and competence from all concerned.

As the person releasing power, be sure to do your inner work, consider how the power served you, if you are dependent on it, and then ask yourself are you really letting go? You can tell if you are still a bottleneck, because people are still seeking your final approval. As your blind spots come into focus, you build your emotional intelligence skills to better equip yourself to address the expected and unexpected emotions that arise within you, and members of your team as power shifts.

With knowledge gained from over 30 years of Fortune 500 and international consulting experience, Yvette shares her rich experience and proprietary model for changing businesses from the inside out. She is a thought leader in the areas of trust, leadership and organizational ecosystems, an award winning author and cultural consultant.

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