Creating Flexible Systems for Family Business Transitions

Jennifer Pendergast
Jennifer Pendergast

As my kids start the year at a new school after moving our family to a new city this summer, I find myself reflecting on transitions.  Family businesses are full of transitions – ownership transitions, leadership transitions and family transitions.  One of the reasons family business is so complex is that these transitions, which have both structural and emotional consequences, often occur simultaneously.  Just as we are dealing with an aging parent, who may require additional family support, we may also be dealing with entrusting stock to the next generation and determining how the next generation will be represented on the board of directors.   So, here’s a quick word of advice in dealing with multiple transitions, from someone who has had to open an new office, move into a new home, get children ready for a new school, support a spouse in a new job and begin to build a business network in a new city, all at the same time …                                  

I’ve found the best way to manage the complexity of multiple transitions is a combination of careful planning and flexibility.  Many of the challenges inherent in family business transitions can be predicted ahead of time.  And, often the timeline can be as well.  So, thinking ahead to identify the likely transitions you face and creating a plan for dealing with them can minimize the disruption, just like my spreadsheet with all the names of the utilities I need to cancel and start helped to keep me on track.  At the same time, we can’t possibly prepare for every potential outcome.  So, when the wireless network in my home office took three days to install instead of one, I had to find a coffee shop to work in and a babysitter to watch the kids.  Similarly, when a next generation member doesn’t measure up to your expectations or the current generation is unwilling to step off the board to make way for new blood, the family needs to adjust.  In my case, the adjustment required me to take a deep breath and look for a solution.  In the family context, the solution often involves multiple parties.  The keys to creating a flexible system to deal with the unexpected are a governance structure that supports family decision-making and trust among family members to help the group compromise on the best solution. 

Would love to hear from readers about ways they have used to create a flexible system….

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