Susan Stern survived cancer with the help of modern medicine and more than two years' rest from the helm of the public relations firm she founded 13 years ago. But medical science couldn't sustain her Cranford, New Jersey, company, Stern + Associates, while she was recuperating. And her clients certainly couldn't put their public relations plans on hold.
Stern's solution was to allow a "clone" of herself to run the company. A longtime employee, Carol Rickner, essentially took over Stern's position while she recovered. "I'd stop in now and then, and we'd meet every week and phone each other as needed," says Stern, who returned to work last year. "But basically, Carol was running the company."
In the scientific community, controversy still surrounds the morality and the feasibility of cloning human beings. But many entrepreneurs have been cloning in a business sense for years--recruiting and grooming people to assume their posts atop the companies they founded and grew.
Even entrepreneurs who can't tell a petri dish from a Bunsen burner are likely to find themselves confronting the issue of whether, when and how to send in the clones, says Sandy Weinberg, a professor of entrepreneurship at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They may refer to this process as grooming a successor, mentoring or simply delegating authority. But for all kinds of critical issues, from managing growth to harvesting the most sales from a slow-moving product line, cloning is at least a potential part of the solution.
You don't have to be in love with yourself to want a clone. There are several solid business reasons why entrepreneurs may choose to clone themselves. For instance, a clone can make it possible for an entrepreneur to divert his or her attention away from daily concerns and have time to seek and develop new markets. A clone can also help deal with purely growth-related problems, ease succession planning and, in some cases, provide the only way for an entrepreneur to sell the company when the time comes.
Growth of a particular sort is Katharine Paine's problem. At The Delahaye Group, her 50-employee marketing consulting firm, international business is exploding. As CEO, Paine spent all of December 1997 and much of November and January in the Far East, half a world away from her Portsmouth, New Hampshire, office.
The extended absence was no problem, Paine reports, thanks to her clone, longtime employee and COO Jill Ury. "Things were fine," says Paine. But without Ury, it would have been difficult for Paine to develop any new markets at all. "The customers feed the vision, so for you to get the inspiration, you need to be out in the field," Paine says. "You can't be at home implementing. You need a clone at home [to do this]."
Even slow- or no-growth businesses must clone if they plan to survive after their founders depart, says Paul Karofsky, executive director of the Center for Family Business at Northeastern University in Dedham, Massachusetts. According to Karofsky, entrepreneurs often want to pass the reins to someone exactly like themselves in order to feed family pride, to assuage the entrepreneur's own anxiety or even to foster a sense of immortality.
Successful founders naturally want to hand control over to someone who will continue to make decisions and run the enterprise in much the same way they did. Entrepreneurs, after all, form powerful emotional attachments to their way of doing things. "It's the notion that if you do things differently from the way I do them, you're not doing them well," says Karofsky. "Therefore, I'll clone myself."
The Secret Formula
Cloning an entrepreneur isn't as tricky as cloning a sheep, but it's no cinch, either. Entrepreneurs have to choose the right clone, groom him or her properly, establish limits and prepare the rest of the company for the clone's presence.
Choosing the right person is the most important step. To make the right selection, says Stern, look at your candidates' styles, not their skills. Stern knew Rickner would make an excellent replacement when she recognized that Rickner had similar values and approaches to the business that would be helpful in keeping the company running smoothly during her recuperation. "She understood the high standards for quality and service I was trying to achieve," Stern says. "And she understood how to build client relationships."
Clones can come from outside the organization, but the best ones come from within. "You grow one," explains Paine. "Find somebody in your company who understands the goals and principles of the company--someone the other employees trust."
One reason for cloning from within is that you need to see how the potential clone interacts with your other employees, clients and suppliers before you can identify them as a clone candidate, says Paine. She first realized she had a clone candidate when Ury was named "Hero of the Year" in a staff poll for three consecutive years.
When grooming your clone, be prepared to make time--lots of it. "It takes two or three years," says Paine. While training in management skills and operational issues may well take that long, the more important issue is letting trust develop between your clone and the rest of the company. "You can buy training," Paine notes. "You can't buy trust."
Just as it would be disconcerting to encounter a duplicate of yourself walking down the street, employees might also be confused by the presence of a clone. Entrepreneurs can handle this by broadly dividing their responsibilities from the clone's responsibilities. As Paine puts it, "If somebody has a big problem, they come to me. If they have a small problem, they go to Jill."
Dividing responsibilities won't work, however, unless everybody knows where the line is, Stern notes. Her 12 employees experienced little or no confusion about the role-swapping, even after she returned to work last year. "I think that's because we were both very sensitive to these issues and planned for them," Stern says. "We always made it clear to the staff what was happening and who was in charge of what."
When it comes to clearly dividing responsibilities between clone and entrepreneur, there's no substitute for walking the walk. In other words, entrepreneurs have to allow clones to make the decisions that are supposed to be theirs to make without interfering. Putting roles into practice helps clear up gray areas of responsibility not covered by written job descriptions and organizational charts.
Stern believes being able to work closely with Rickner as her second-in-command for years before her illness lessened the amount of confusion employees felt about who was responsible for what. "We just make a great team," Stern says. "And I think the staff can see that, which made it very easy for them [to adapt]."
Any number of scientific journals have dealt with the costs and potential problems in terms of confusion, control and responsibility that might arise from cloning. And many of the same controversies apply to entrepreneurial cloning.
When it comes down to it, the most likely problem is that the entrepreneur will be unwilling to let the clone do the job for which he or she was groomed. "It's easier to find these people than it is to delegate to them," says Weinberg.
Many entrepreneurs don't recognize that someone other than themselves is capable of making good decisions, says Richard Hayman, president of Hayman Systems, a 91-employee point-of-sale and computer company in Laurel, Maryland. He experienced that scenario firsthand 16 years ago after taking the reins of the company his father founded.
"My dad was a typical entrepreneur, a jack-of-all-trades," says Hayman. "He was a one-man show who could do anything. His greatest criticism of me was that I could only do one thing at a time." Because of that, his dad refused to delegate to him.
Entrepreneurs willing to give up control may find the costs of recruiting a clone are steep. After Joe Kraus and the five other co-founders of Excite Inc. decided a few years ago they needed a clone of their collective ability to take their Internet search-engine provider into the big time, the Redwood City, California-based, start-up quickly spent $100,000 on executive search fees.
And the cash outlay wasn't the worst part, Kraus says. The search also ate up six to nine months of the founders' time. "We probably interviewed 20-plus people, and that was after the recruiting firm had gone through them," says Kraus. The results were good, however: They found a president and CEO in George Bell, a former senior vice president of Times/Mirror Magazines.
The least obvious risk of cloning is that the entrepreneur will succeed too well in creating an exact duplicate. Hayman notes that his father started their family business in 1938 as a purveyor of mechanical cash registers. Although the older Hayman proved flexible in piloting the firm through the era of electronics, more and different challenges lie ahead. An exact replica of the successful founder might well be a failure today, notes Hayman. "If I had done things the way [my father] did them," he says, "we would have been out of business a long time ago. Changing with the times is very important."
Perhaps it's fortunate that experts say the odds of replicating a businessperson in every way are probably even worse than the odds of cloning a human in a laboratory. "If you think the new leader will be [an exact] clone," says Karofsky, "you're setting yourself up for failure."
What can you do? Take a Dr. Frankenstein approach and assemble a virtual clone by using several people, suggests Gary Schmidt, COO of Saville & Holdsworth's Consulting West division in Chicago. It's easier and more efficient to have a group of specialists in various areas than it is to come up with a single duplicate of the jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur, he says. "You'll even need some people who are the antithesis of the entrepreneur," he adds. "They'll help challenge ideas or do things like detail work that many entrepreneurs aren't good at."
All business strategies carry risks and costs, and cloning is no different. But entrepreneurs who have lived through a situation requiring a clone would no more try to run their businesses without one than they would apply for a loan without having a current balance sheet.
At Stern + Associates, the potentially disastrous absence of the CEO for nearly three years turned out to be more calm than storm. Stern returned to a company with a stable staff, content clients and annual billings virtually identical to the billings recorded when she left.
Did putting in a replacement save her business? "We would have gotten by," says Stern, "but we surely wouldn't have been as successful."
Because her arrangement with Rickner was so successful, Stern strongly advises entrepreneurs to plan for a time when they may not be there for their companies. "When you start a business," she says, "there's a tendency to be so excited you almost feel invincible. But you don't realize anything could happen, and you need to be ready for it."
Excite Inc., (650) 568-6000, http://www.excite.com
Hayman Systems, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.hayman.com
Saville & Holdsworth, email@example.com, http://www.shlusa.com
Stern + Associates, fax: (908) 276-7007, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Delahaye Group Inc., (603) 431-0111, email@example.com