Listening to the Heart or the Head? Exploring the “Willingness Versus Ability” Succession Dilemma

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Melanie Richards of University of Bath, Nadine Kammerlander of WHU–Otto Beisheim School of Management, and Thomas Zellweger of the University of St. Gallen. They recently published an article in the Family Business Review entitled “Listening to the Heart or the Head? Exploring the “Willingness Versus Ability” Succession Dilemma,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the influences and possible impact of this research:]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

When talking to entrepreneurs, we increasingly realized that finding a willing and able successor from the family was often a challenge. Often, the incumbents reported about very capable children who were, however, not willing to take over the business but wanted to start a different career. In other cases the successors showed willingness, but lacked the ability, according to their parents. Thus, we started to wonder whether willingness or ability was more important to the incumbents.

Were there any specific external events—political, social, or economic—that influenced your decision to pursue this research?

In the year 2019, succession is generally not considered a “hot topic” – neither in academia nor in the public press. Yet it is of utmost relevance. Each year, tenthousands of small- and medium-sized (family) business are up for succession in Germany and Switzerland only. Those businesses are the backbone of our economy, they provide a large number of job positions and trainee jobs. Hence, keeping them up and alive should be of interest not only for incumbents, but also for politicians and basically everyone interested in the continued prosperity of the economy. As such, I find it particularly important to understand how successor decisions and succession decisions are made. I hope that our study on successor preferences makes it clear that there are many important research gaps left in the field of succession and that they are worth being closed.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

In this study, we provided a scenario – or case vignette – to the respondents of our study. That is, we describe a specific retirement situation and availability of succession candidates to them and ask them whom they would choose. Such survey based “policy capturing” has several advantages over traditional, questionnaire-based research asking for past successions or asking for intentions. The big advantage is that we can really learn about preferences here, which are undistorted by the specific situation of the entrepreneur. Thus, they help us to build up a better conceptualization and theorizing of how the entrepreneurs make sense and decide.

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