Walking the Walk: Facing the Succession Process in My Own Business

From an abbreviated version to be posted in 'Our Family Business at Odds.'

By Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

A few years back my daughter Jenny expressed an interest in joining me in my business. I told her to go get a Doctorate in Psychology and then we could talk. Now she is doing it. Her goal is to complete her doctorate in Psychology and then to join me in my business, which is consulting to family owned businesses. I told myself that since I know "everything" there is to do and say in a succession process - a key issue in any family business - the only way our process can be fouled up is for me to foul it up.

After Jenny and I had our first business meeting to outline the scope of the job, etc., I felt comfortable with our arrangement - for about three days. Then the father/daughter issues kicked in. I found myself impatient with some of Jenny's behavior. While my style is to get it done yesterday, she's okay with getting it done tomorrow. When that aspect of her personality showed up in my business, I was not happy, and I didn't know how to have her understand that "tomorrow" is fine when it is her business but not when it is mine.

So we had a talk. It was not easy. Since Jenny has only known me as a father, and I have only known her as a daughter, it was difficult and unrealistic to expect that we could move from that relationship to a professional relationship just because we declared it. We agreed that our relationship would have its struggles, but that we are both committed to struggling together. I also suggested that we slow down the process of announcing to everyone that she is entering the business because there is always a chance of failure and that would be a disaster. We agreed to a three month trial period. That helped. It took the pressure off.

What is the lesson here? You can never eliminate conflict when family members work together. Because of the ambiguity generated by the personal/business relationship, it is normal, even systemic, for those challenging dynamics to surface. However, one can learn to manage that ambiguity and those dynamics; that is what we are doing.