“We’re doing it that way because that is what Dad wanted. And for as long as he is alive, that’s how we’re going to do it. It was Dad’s dream, he built it, he gave it to us, and that’s what’s important. We have to honor Dad.”
The statement silenced the rest of the siblings who were trying to have a discussion around the development of a shareholders agreement. The agreement was a “last man standing” contract where upon the death of the shareholder, their shares were retired and the remaining owners had a larger stake in the company. The sibling group of eight were in their 50s and 60s, and contemplating their own future. Some of the siblings worked in the company but most did not. One of the siblings had been diagnosed with a chronic illness that had the potential to shorten her life, and she wanted to understand the consequences of her ownership for her children. She understood the children were to receive the financial gain for the sale of the stock back to the company, but one of her children also worked for the company and hoped to become part owner one day.
While there were many facets to the discussion, I stopped the conversation and asked all of the siblings to step back a bit. Why would their dad want the agreement to read like that? What would be the purpose of formulating such an agreement? The fourth child answered, “Because he wanted the decision making to be consolidated so no one who was running the company would have to ask anyone else for permission to do something.”
I asked the remaining siblings if that was true. They all nodded in agreement. I proceeded to ask why their dad would have felt so strongly about consolidating decision making. Then another sibling told me the story of their dad, his father and his uncles. It was a story of destructive work habits and entitlement that strapped the company and angered the siblings’ father. He eventually bought everyone out and turned the company around. Their father had a very compelling reason to have the shareholders agreement written in the way that it was. However, it was now time for the siblings to come together to decide what was right for them as a group and their families going forward.
Each generation must navigate their own waters. Each generation must decide what is right for them, and what to pass forward. Each generation must face the tension of what is right for their nuclear family, and what is best for the whole and come together to negotiate a decision. And the successful negotiation can only happen through communication.
Often as consultants we are asked to speak or write on best practices. We are asked to give advice on what works best. The problem with those answers is that in order to be a best practice we must answer, “It depends.” The best answer is that each group must come together to review, to communicate, and to decide together a path that moves the family and the business forward in a constructive way. What is best for one family enterprise may not be the best for another.
I was reminded of this the past week when I listened to a webinar on the next generation and how they need to individuate and differentiate from the family. They need to become their own person and understand their own identity, their own strengths and weaknesses. When they can stand on their own, make their own decisions in a healthy way, these children become an adult who can bring a lot of positives to the family and the business, regardless if they work there or not. It is the same with each generation of a family business. They must understand where they came from, appreciate the hard work of the older generation, but decide what their own strengths and weaknesses are, what they need to do for each other as a whole in order to put their own stamp on the family and the business.
The next time you are in a family meeting, work in individual generations to decide:
- What are our strengths as a group?
- What is a potential area that could make us unravel?
- What do we want our generation to be known for?
- What happens if we do nothing?
Honor your past and hope for the future, but don’t forget to make (as a group) your own impact on the family business.