Mark Serrianne describes
Northlich Inc. as his
life’s work. His career at the $19 million advertising and
public relations firm began in
1974, and over the next 23 years,
he worked his way up to the
top, becoming Northlich’s CEO
and majority owner in 1997.
But all good things must come
to an end, and by last year,
Serrianne was ready to leave
the company’s top post and
assume the role of chairman.
However, it’s not as simple as
just stepping down. When the
time comes to pass the torch,
you need involvement on many
different levels to make the
transfer of control a success.
Paving the way for a successor takes planning and team-work from the outgoing CEO,
the incoming successor and
employees throughout the company. The more people know
and understand what is going
on, the better off everyone will
be during the changeover.
Smart Business spoke with
Serrianne about how to approach
succession planning in a way
that benefits everyone in your
Q. How do you set the stage
for a successful transition of
There are three or four kinds
of very vital components that
you work to put in place to successfully transfer control of a
company. When I say successful, I mean you want to keep
your culture and reputation in
place and maintain the stability
of your business.
No. 1, you want a high-performance leadership team with
an acknowledged leader in
place. No. 2, you want to have a business model that is working
and performing well and is a
strong foundation for a new
leadership team to spring from.
No. 3, having a clarity of vision
in an environment that fosters
fresh ideas. In our world, it’s all
about change, so having a clarity of vision and an environment
that fosters that is very important.
A fourth point is shared values. ... I think when you’re looking to transfer ownership and
plan for succession, you want to
have a leadership team that
shares in those values.
You have to breathe life into
your vision. It’s not something
you occasionally breathe life
into. You have to actively
breathe life into it by forming a
plan of objectives, goals,
strategies and even measures that are very clearly
articulated. If you have
that, you are definitely
breathing life into that
vision. If you have consensus around that
vision, you have a kind of
driving that plan.
Q. How do you choose
the right successors?
You need to ask questions and make observations of the traits you’re
trying to identify in your
You ask questions, but
there are also observations that you, as a CEO, are
making at the same time.
The No. 1 trait is having a fire
in their belly. It’s your legacy
that they’re carrying forward as
well as building on their own.
Secondly, they need to have a
tolerance for risk. When you’re
buying a company, you’re pretty
much putting your livelihood on
the line and you’re taking on a huge responsibility to look after
the livelihood of others. There is
no going back once you’ve purchased a company. Thirdly, they
need resilience. ... Another one
of the observations you look for
in successors is sort of a raw
creativity and high standards —
high standards about our work,
high standards about our people. And a last point is having a
really great intuitive judgment.
Street savvy is another way of
How do you formulate those
observations? When you have a
business where your teams
work so intimately together,
when you have multidiscipli-nary teams actively working
together, you’re able to observe how people lead, how they
respond to high-performance
needs, intense timetables,
demanding client requests and
the ability to inspire and lead
others. When you’re working
together that intimately, the
cream rises to the top.
You’re observing so much and
experiencing so much when
you’re working with these people closely, you see the results,
what are they delivering, how
are they training and growing
people under them.
Q. What do employees and
clients want to know?
Employees want to know
what the outgoing CEO’s role
will be. The reaction from people during an ownership change
kind of covers the whole range.
On one end, people are going to
be thrilled knowing there is going
to be a passing of the baton. On
the other end, people are going
to be nervous. People want to
know in succession planning
that the leaders are going to be
available. When I say people, I
also mean clients. Clients want
to know that you are going to
be available to coach, to be a
connector and an ambassador.
Q. How do you ready yourself
to relinquish control?
Transferring ownership of a
company you’ve led for so long
can be difficult. But transferring
ownership is all about creating
opportunity for others. Organizations need fresh ideas, and you
want to build and sustain what
you helped create. A smart owner
has to be intuitive and know
when the timing is right. You just
have to be brave enough to know
when to get out of the way.
HOW TO REACH: Northlich Inc., www.northlich.com