Splitting Roles

Chris Eckrich

We often talk about the many hats each person wears in a family business.  On the business side, one individual may hold the titles of Chairman and CEO, or CEO and COO.  On the family side, one person can serve as both the Family Council Chair and Education Committee Chair.  Individuals that take on leadership in multiple roles in this way are to be greatly appreciated, as with multiple leadership roles come multiple responsibilities.

A challenge develops over time when the “multiple hat”-wearer begins fusing the roles and sees all of the accepted responsibility as “just my job.”  His or her ability to differentiate between the two–or more–roles may become lost over time due to task familiarity.

As succession approaches and it’s time to transition these responsibilities to others, it can be a bit perplexing as to how the various roles should be split.  Without clarity around this question, when a shift is made to allow different individuals to take on the newly split roles, role confusion and frustration are likely to occur.

A quick example:  Arnold had occupied the position of CEO and Chairman.  As Arnold neared the age of transition (in his mid sixties), he determined that the business would be best served by keeping his role as Chairman, while his daughter Alyssa – who had demonstrated much competency over time and earned the position – assumed the role of CEO.  Over the many years of holding both the Chairman and CEO roles, Arnold became quite used to behaving in a certain way. With the new split in roles, he found himself stepping on Alyssa’s toes inadvertently which caused both confusion and conflict.  This caught Arnold by surprise – not a lot of planning went into the role division as they just figured they could work it out over time due to their close relationship.

New approach:  Arnold is suddenly struck by the lack of formality he has given to this situation.  He initiates an exercise whereby each role would be defined clearly in terms of its expectations, responsibilities and reporting relationships.  He includes Alyssa in this process and they work through areas of confusion by asking their Board members for input in the job descriptions they are working on.  Once they have agreed on their positions and reporting relationships, and how they will communicate about the business (frequency, content), the tensions seem to melt away.  This allows each of them to function independently and motivates Arnold to give Alyssa space to be the CEO while he focuses on being the Chairman.

Arnold’s lesson: Just because you are family does not mean you always have to act like it.  Splitting roles, whether they are family or business roles, requires forethought and advance planning.  By approaching the splitting of long standing roles as a professional exercise, Alyssa and Arnold enjoyed a much improved working relationship, which made life easier both at work and at home.