How do you reach out to the next generation?

Business Leader Post, September 18, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

At best, succession is a process that takes place over time. Unfortunately, succession frequently takes the form of “The King/Queen is dead. Long live the King/Queen."  That is to say that the responsibility and authority changes hands at the demise of the decision maker. Since the new decision maker rarely has the same degree of institutional power as the previous owner and/or the personal power of the father/mother, he/she is ill prepared. The “subjects” then become anxious. Chaos reigns, and both the family and the business are at risk.

Many family members in family businesses are aware of these hazards and try to reach out to other family members to begin a meaningful dialogue as preparation for the inevitable, i.e. that nobody escapes this life alive.  They are stymied in their attempts for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that family members may be uncomfortable expressing their strong feelings about both the existing situation and the future. 
Group meetings can be daunting because nobody knows what the rules are. How much permission does one really have to express one's feelings/thoughts? How will people respond to “true feelings”? Is it really safe to share? Will one's thoughts/feelings be taken seriously? Is there a hidden agenda?

My suggestion is that you begin the dialogue on a confidential, one-to-one basis. Sit down with the next generation and/or other key family members. Explain to them that you are interested in the continuation of family harmony and the continued success of the family enterprise. Tell them that by definition of being a family member, they are important; and the role they play and will play in the family and the enterprise is important whether it be as an owner or a manager. Consequently, you would like their input in a number of areas so that you can begin to plan for the future.

Sample questions, might be: What are their thoughts/feelings as family members? What do they see as the future? What do they think/feel about today’s situation? How do they see the family? What issues do they see that the family/and the family enterprise may be facing?  What do they want to know more about?

The key to this exercise is to listen. Things will be said that you don’t understand or agree with. However, you need to refrain from responding to those types of statements and just listen. A level of rapport is established by listening.  The individual experiences a sense of safety and that he/she is being taken seriously. He/she will then be more likely to respond in a thoughtful and serious manner and will share ideas and thoughts that will more than likely surprise you.

Finally ask them if they would be willing to participate in a process that will address future issues that could help the family stay together and protect the integrity and the economic future of the enterprise.

After you have had this dialogue with a number of family members, themes and similar thoughts will begin to emerge. You will have a lot of good information about what your challenges are, and, quite possibly, what the next steps are that need to be taken.