Succession planning – a tool for promoting the perpetual existence of African startups


Handing over a leadership baton can be an incredibly daunting task for any leader – and the organizations they lead. Surprisingly, many African startups are unprepared for the possibility of a key team member’s sudden departure and have no concrete plan in place for such an event. In fact, some businesses have never even given it a thought.

However, the smartest and most forward-thinking companies not only acknowledge the importance of this issue but also take proactive steps to develop a well-thought-out strategy called a succession plan.

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to highlight the importance of succession planning for African startups and businesses, with a particular focus on the need for these companies to proactively develop and implement succession plans – enabling a seamless transition of leadership and paving the way for a prosperous future in the ever-evolving business landscape of Africa.

What is succession planning in business management?

Succession planning is the process of identifying key roles within an organization and devising strategic measures to groom and prepare individuals to assume those vital positions. It creates a clear path for each position, delineating the essential skills necessary for optimal performance in the said position and how those skills can be attained. Additionally, it aids in identifying top talent within an organization.

In Africa, discussions about death, grave misfortune, permanent disability and the founder’s retirement are often avoided or perceived as uncomfortable topics, especially in the context of business. However, in order to ensure continuity any serious organization will have prepared for succession.

Traditionally, succession planning has been viewed as a strategic process primarily targetting key management positions. However, businesses are now recognizing the importance of broadening the scope of this activity to encompass all roles and individuals throughout the entire organization.

By having a well-defined succession plan in place, an organization ensures that it constantly has access to the essential skills required for its smooth functioning. Succession planning also enables an organization to be prepared for both anticipated and unforeseen events, thereby enhancing its overall resilience.

Significance of succession planning for business management

In Africa, where many businesses are family-owned and managed, the importance of effective succession planning cannot be overstated. Succession planning plays a pivotal role in ensuring the seamless transition of leadership from one generation to the next, thus safeguarding the company’s competitive edge and long-term viability.

This goes beyond merely identifying potential successors – it involves a strategic and well-thought-out process of grooming and developing individuals to assume key leadership roles; and its significance includes the following:

  1. Preservation of family values and legacy

One of the primary advantages of succession planning in African businesses is preservation of the family’s legacy. Many family-owned companies have a rich history and unique values that have been passed down through generations.

Ensuring a smooth and effective leadership transition allows these values to endure, maintaining the core identity and culture of the organization. This continuity is not only crucial for the company’s identity but also for maintaining the trust and loyalty of customers and stakeholders who have long-standing relationships with the business.

  1. Mitigation of risks associated with leadership vacuums

Furthermore, succession planning mitigates potential risks associated with leadership vacuums. Often, business owners become deeply engrossed in the day-to-day operations of their company and inadvertently overlook the significance of succession planning. They may perceive themselves as too young to face serious health issues or fail to consider the possibility of key personnel being enticed away by irresistible job offers from other organizations. Any of these scenarios can render a business exceptionally vulnerable.

Succession planning serves as an essential component of your senior leadership’s comprehensive strategy to safeguard the company’s future, regardless of whether you are personally present for its long-term success or not. It can be likened to a form of business continuity insurance that entails nurturing and developing employees to take on crucial roles and responsibilities.

By engaging in proactive succession planning, businesses fortify themselves against potential disruptions and ensure a smooth transition of leadership whenever the need arises.

  1. Creating a structure for training and development

Also, having a succession plan as a business provides an avenue to create structures for training and development. As your company identifies individuals who are eager to advance into higher-level positions, the focus shifts toward recognizing any areas of competency that may need development, paving the way for their eventual succession. In some cases certain positions may require candidates to pursue further education or obtain professional certifications, and the company may choose to support them in this endeavour.

By proactively identifying potential successors early on, employees are granted ample time to acquire the essential skills and experience needed to excel in senior roles. Additionally, this approach demonstrates to employees that the organization is committed to investing in their growth and development, fostering a sense of loyalty and motivation among ambitious team members looking to advance their careers within the company.

  1. Attracting investors and partnerships

Having a clear and comprehensive succession plan not only provides assurance to investors and potential partners about the company’s stability, but also demonstrates that the business is prepared for unforeseen leadership changes. Investors and partners are more likely to be confident in committing their resources to an organization that has a well-thought-out succession strategy, as it reduces the risks associated with leadership transitions and ensures continuity of the company’s operations and growth trajectory.

Factors accounting for the failure of success planning

Studies have shown that renowned global businesses owe much of their long-lasting success to effective succession planning. Interestingly, many of these companies’ founders and CEOs begin crafting their exit strategies right from the start of their leadership journeys. Top of Form

However, in the case of African-owned and controlled businesses there seems to be a struggle with succession planning. Why is that? Some founders are reluctant to give up control to someone else, while others fear that no one else could do the job as well or better. As a result, transitions often become tangled and far from smooth. Poor succession planning has even led to the downfall of well-known African conglomerates.

The following are therefore some of the bottlenecks a typical African startup or business may face in the course of developing and implementing a successful succession plan.

  1. Poor handling of leadership transition

Research has shown that the secret to successful organizations lies in understanding that succession is a gradual journey, not just a one-time event. Sadly, in most African jurisdictions leadership transitions often become a crisis due to the lack of a well-structured process.

Succession planning is frequently handled haphazardly, leading to the appointment of new leaders without clear criteria; especially when the founder unexpectedly leaves or is compelled to step down. This approach results in prolonged turmoil that seriously threatens the company’s survival. To avoid such pitfalls, it’s crucial to have a well-thought-out succession plan – especially at the CEO level, starting well in advance of the current leader’s retirement or exit. This way, potential successors can be identified and groomed carefully to ensure a smooth transition.

  1. Polygamy and cultural norms and practices

Many successful African entrepreneurs have been known to marry multiple wives. However, this practice can lead to significant challenges when it comes to choosing a successor, especially after the entrepreneur’s passing.

The rivalry and conflicts that arise among the children and spouses of polygamous patriarchs, along with various cultural inheritance laws found in various African countries, often make it difficult to objectively select the most qualified successor. As a result, a succession crisis can occur – further complicated by the different wives vying for their own children to take on leadership roles without considering their suitability for the position.

Further, cultural factors may also play a role in succession planning challenges. In some African corporate cultures, the eldest family member automatically assumes leadership regardless of their skills or capabilities – which can be detrimental to the business’s growth and sustainability.

  1. Succession disputes

It is a common fact of life that everyone will eventually pass away, and businessmen are no exception. However, many African entrepreneurs seem hesitant to prepare a will; possibly fearing that it is akin to tempting fate or acknowledging their mortality. Consequently, they often delay acting until it is too late. Unfortunately, this delay can lead to prolonged succession battles that may go on for years… causing significant harm to the business.

To prevent such scenarios and safeguard the future of their businesses, founders and business owners must take the responsible step of drafting their wills as early as possible, and ensure they are properly filed to minimize potential legal disputes during execution.

  1. Choosing the wrong successor

Selecting the right successor tends to be a challenging decision for many founders and departing CEOs. They might be inclined to pick someone who mirrors their traits or displays unwavering loyalty, but this approach can often lead to mistaken choices that jeopardize the company’s future.

The paramount concern should always be the organization’s survival and sustained growth, setting aside personal preferences. Above all, integrity should be the primary consideration when choosing a successor. Ensuring that the selected individual embodies honesty and trustworthiness is a minimum requirement for any company’s succession planning.

The way going forward

Succession planning is like a proactive roadmap for your company’s future. It is all about being prepared, so when a key team member decides to move on you already have a well-prepared and capable individual in mind to step into their shoes. It is a regular activity every African business must carry out every year, assessing the progress of potential successors and keeping an eye on any changes or advancements within the organization. In this light, the following are some strategies African businesses can adopt in developing successful succession plans.

First, there must be an assessment of the business or organization as a whole. This requires the founder or entrepreneur to evaluate the existing workforce to pinpoint crucial roles and standout employees. Remember that key individuals might not always be in high-ranking positions – they could be contributing significantly from support roles.

The success of your succession plan hinges on thoroughly assessing every member of your team. This way you will have a solid strategy in place that covers all the important people and positions, setting you up for a smooth transition whenever the need arises.

Second, there is a need to develop a watertight succession planning strategy. In doing so, every founder, leader or entrepreneur must consider the following questions:

  1. Do you want a complete succession plan that includes every position and employee in your organization? Or do you want a succession plan that covers only senior management and other important leadership positions?
  2. Will identifying and grooming successors be incorporated into your managers’ performance reviews?
  3. Does your company have particular vulnerabilities, such as a large percentage of retiring employees in a particular division?
  4. What’s your ultimate goal? What outcome are you hoping for?

Further, integrating diversity and inclusion into your succession plan is essential for nurturing a multifaceted leadership pipeline. By embracing individuals from various backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, your succession strategy can cultivate innovative thinking, diminish reliance on a single leadership approach, and foster a more dynamic and adaptable organizational culture.

Finally, transparency in the criteria and process for selecting successors is a fundamental aspect of a successful succession plan. When the criteria and selection process are clearly communicated to all employees, it promotes fairness and equal opportunity. This transparency helps in building trust among employees, as they understand that promotions and advancements are based on merit rather than favouritism.


African businesses must proactively adopt succession planning as an intentional policy and integrate it within their strategic blueprint, subject to regular evaluation. Delaying this process might compromise the lasting success and viability of these companies. No business, regardless of size or age, should underestimate the value of succession planning. Equally important is the need to put these plans into action with purpose and discipline, as merely formulating plans without implementation will be unproductive and a waste of time.

>>>the writer is an Associate at Sustineri Attorneys PRUC with its Corporate, Governance and Transactions Practice Group, specializing in legal service provision for Startups/SMEs, Fintechs, and Innovations. He welcomes views on this article via [email protected]


Leave a Reply