Our colleagues Asa Bjornberg and John Ward have both spent considerable time reflecting on and analyzing the answers to this question. Their sage advice: cherish what was as you embrace what will be. Base your entrepreneurial initiatives on the spirit and culture of the business you are taking over.
As a family business consultant who has a background as a family therapist, I often reflect on the profound impact of emotional issues on family business functioning.
For example, I have always thought that from a developmental perspective it’s a bit wrong to grow up in a family, live with a family and then go work with your family. I say that not because I don’t believe in family businesses (I do!), but rather because it’s very difficult to become an individual AND to hold your own inside of your family system. And this can be made even more difficult by working with your family every day and maybe getting a bit “stuck” in your family role.
Developmentally, you need some kind of break, you need to spread your wings, go out in the world, work for someone else, make your own way and gather your self esteem from what you accomplish for yourself using your own brains, charm, personality, skills etc. This is certainly some of the reason that best practices suggest children work outside the business for three to five years before deciding to join the business.
When you move right into the family business sometimes you are locked into your role in the family, you are locked in by yourself, your parents, your sisters, brothers, cousins etc. and you probably do the same thing to them!
Some of you might find your ‘assigned family role’ is positive. Maybe you are the one everyone thinks of as the leader so you get to continue with this role. But what if you are the troublesome black sheep?
How do you get past that and not continue to be labeled by your family?
In my case, I laugh about how at 52 years old my family still thinks of me as “the kid who constantly gets in car wrecks”….they used to call me Crash.
When I was talking about the car I recently purchased with my family members, the first thing out of everyone’s mouth was have you wrecked it yet?
Funny thing, I haven’t wrecked a car or gotten a speeding ticket for more than twenty years! But old labels take a long time to die – and apparently, some never really do…!
And on one hand it’s okay, as long as you still can stand up to people and forge ahead being who you are and not just becoming the person that everyone expects you to be. I promise you, I will not be having any car wrecks just to make my family happy or right!
People do change, we have to stand up and hold firm in our families and not cave to our “role” if it no longer suits us.
And even if you were always thought of as the leader that is not always such a great label either. Because when do you get a chance to NOT be that person? Leaders can really disappoint people when they don’t do what others expect, and the expectations are high – that is a heavy burden to carry.
I feel like all of us who are involved in the world of family businesses need to remember that these issues around family are always there and can be the most complicated, the most embedded, the most deeply internalized.
The emotional issues are difficult to deal with, but when you do, when as a family we start to respect who each member is, as part of a group AND as an individual, it opens up communication, it frees us from ourselves and our own internalized beliefs about who people think we are and it really makes us happier people. I believe that, and I have seen this truth in action countless times.
In addition, once we can be authentic, mature individuals who have a perspective based on our individual experiences, as well as our family experiences, our contribution to the business can be even greater.
There is nothing more liberating than knowing who you are and letting your family see that, and then finding out that the reality is they accept us….because down deep families want the best for each other and more than likely, just want you to be happy.
Family firm CEO founders often make really bad decisions when given the opportunity to select their successor. They’re terrific at running the company, unequaled in closing deals and driving a hard bargain but ask them to name their successor and watch them lose their ability for human reason and corporate leadership. “After much thought, (I decree that) my successor will be insert-first-name-here.
“Much though” is often the son, daughter, niece or nephew s/he thinks will upset as few people as possible or the one with the longest tenure. No matter – the real kicker is this: selection of successor CEOs, by all rights, belongs in the sandbox of the Board of Directors. If the board consists of family and inside managers only, it’s a safe bet they’ll do whatever it is the senior leader – usually parent to many – decides. No open debate among qualified, experienced business people. No obvious linkage between next generation shareholder vision, corporate strategic objectives and successor skill sets. Simply the decree.
Then estate plans are drawn up, control willed to the successor at the death of the second parent to die (if a first to second generation transfer) and, “by golly – I sure handled that well. No arguments among the kids and no room for arguments later on because control is in the hand of the anointed one” the founder assures himself.
Nothing could be farther, father, from the truth! Instead, what may likely happen is the siblings or cousins not given any control will find ways to express their wishes. They will argue during holiday dinners on matters of compensation and reward. They will try to gang up on the new CEO. They may even punish you and your spouse during the waning years of your life by withholding visitation with grandchildren.
Estate plans and bifurcated stock do not equal family harmony. Family and shareholder harmony in family enterprise is achieved through robust governance, perceived procedural justice and healthy debate with unbiased input from serious-minded, experienced business people with no stake in the outcome.
And – here’s another reason to abdicate the decision to a more impartial process and jury. Life is hard enough. You’ve built a terrific enterprise, the source of employment and financial security to all those families. You’ve bested the competition in tough times. You have earned the right to dodge this bullet and avoid being the source of future family discord. Over the long haul – you’ll stand a much better chance of being remembered as a great leader and terrific parent.