Does the answer to succession lie in the next generation?

Business Leader Post, July 29, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

The answer is yes, but it is difficult for families to arrive at that conclusion.
Family systems are built on the authority of parents. However, parents often overestimate the power of authority inherent in parenting, and, at the same time, underestimate the importance of just listening. Listening to children is not the same as agreeing with them or allowing them to make a lot of decisions. Clearly, the early stages of child rearing are rooted in setting rules and boundaries.

But over time, as children mature, become adults, and enter the family business, the parent's role needs to move towards listening and away from the role of authority.  When parents have authority over children and still listen to them, they allow their adult children to take on more responsibility and to experience themselves as independent decision makers.

This period of development is the most difficult one for both the children and the parents.  If the adult child were working in a business outside the family, the role of parental authority could melt away; and the parent could more easily assume the role of listener and advisor. But the family business, in which both generations work together, creates an ambiguous situation: The boss remains the parent. Listening and allowing the adult child to make his or her own decisions feels risky, even when the risks are only imaginary.  The risk and the fear associated with it can freeze the roles of parent and child in time.

When there is more than one adult child in the business, the individual relationships between the children and their parent/boss take on an additional dynamic--both siblings compete with each other for more responsibility/authority. This sibling rivalry creates a dilemma for the parent. Giving more authority/responsibility to one or the other, even when one child is more prepared for it than another, only adds fuel to the fire.   

What should you do as a parent?  Use the more complicated situation to your advantage. You place the responsibility for the plan of when, how and why they should have more responsibility on their shoulders. Tell them that they have to work it out between themselves. Force them to come to you with plans/ideas, and then keep that process in place over time. Each incremental change will require them to come up with a plan, implement it and be held accountable for it.  

I can guarantee you that there will be many arguments.  They will blame each other if they cannot agree, or if the plan fails. It does not matter. Explain to them that they are a team, and they succeed or fail together.  If they want to succeed badly enough, they will figure it out. The intended consequence is that you will escape from the frozen relationship of ambiguity with each of them. You will create the feeling of independence from you by having them succeed based on their own ideas and performance. You will ultimately force the next generation to figure it while you are healthy. When they do, the transition will be a lot easier. If they can't get along with each other, you will find that out very early in the process. You will then have the opportunity to act on their inability to get along, and thereby avoid a potential disaster for the family and the business when you are no longer around.