An Important Truth for First Generations to Learn in Family Businesses

When an entrepreneur starts his own business, from an ownership perspective, one of the key hurdles to overcome is securing enough capital to survive, then thrive. The principle sources of this capital are usually the savings and assets of the owner plus “sweat equity” invested by the owner and perhaps family and friends. The owner usually makes significant, personal sacrifices which help him and his family survive while their business is being built into a thriving, growing entity.

When ownership is passed to the second generation and the entrepreneur decides to share ownership between his children, the complexities at the ownership level increase exponentially. This complexity is a key hurdle for the second generation to overcome. Whereas the entrepreneur had sole control and could offer clarity in direction and decision, now that the ownership is shared, roles must be established and siblings must negotiate how they will cooperate in a shared power, shared authority model.

This complexity only increases if the entrepreneur decides to stay involved in the business without a clearly defined role. If he is vague about when full control will be passed to his children or if he is prone to take a extended time away from the business only to come back and start ordering his old staff and his children around, he will effectively create such havoc that his children may decide the family business isn’t worth their effort and time.

After passing control to his children, you might hear him talk about the old days – the work and sacrifice that was needed to get the business off the ground and make it successful. What’s ironic is that he’ll likely talk in such a way as to indicate that his children have no idea how much he has sacrificed and how they really don’t understand just how much has been given to them. In short, he’ll likely talk with an attitude of “they just don’t appreciate what they have”.

In this scenario, what isn’t appreciated is the comparison of apples to oranges. Yes, the entrepreneur sacrificed much to get the business to a thriving, sustainable state. But what he is passing to his children is not only a thriving business, but a set of complex, emotionally-charged elements that affect both their business and their families. He never had to negotiate power, control and the dual (sometimes triple) relationships that his children are negotiating. In short, he doesn’t appreciate what he is passing on and the potentialities for failure that could destroy his children’s and grand-children’s family relationships. Not only does a family business have the potential unify and support an extended family and their community, but a family business also has the potential to divide and destroy an extended family and damage the broader community in which they live.

This important truth sometimes is not appreciated by the members of the first generation. This is why clarity and intentionality in a succession plan is so important. If the children of the entrepreneur seemed to have harmonious relationships while growing up, one cannot assume that they will be free of conflict in their business roles. On multiple occasions where siblings who grew up together in happy, harmonious relationships, I have seen siblings never talking again in life because conflicts in the business drove a deep wedge between them.

So, what can be done? Here are several ideas:

First, the entrepreneur should have his children assessed for their real strengths and passions. Just because they inherited his DNA doesn’t mean they are the right people to lead his business moving forward. I’m not talking about just a matrix of psychological tests, which can be helpful. Instead, I’m referring to having his children work for someone else for at least five years, preferably ten, to have an objective, real-world assessment of their abilities, talents, passions and interests. Incidentally, this has the added benefit of giving them an opportunity to observe and learn from managers other than their father.

Secondly, don’t assume children in the second generation are the right people to lead the company moving forward. There are a number of family owned businesses that fail who could have succeeded had they decided to have nonfamily leadership run their family business. In a nutshell: be willing to be “family owned”, but not “family operated”.

Thirdly, give the children a “trial” period of running the family business before passing legal ownership to them – say two or three years. See how they interact. See who emerges as a peacemaker or a troublemaker. See if running the business changes their relationships. Then assess and make a decision about passing ownership to the next generation. The entrepreneur may be surprised by the decisions he ends up making.

Appreciating the key hurdles that the second generation will face and helping them over those hurdles will be one of the greatest, most enduring acts of love and kindness an entrepreneur will ever accomplish.

Bill English

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