Families who run a business, a foundation or are in a transition stage hesitate sometimes to talk about the future. Non-family businesses struggle with the same dynamic. However, families will have multi-generational questions that impact each generation differently. For younger generations whose families own businesses, there are decisions to be made about pursuing careers.
The first question for this younger generation is: If the family business did not exist, how would you choose a career trajectory? This is a critical question because it forces each individual to think beyond the boundaries of a family business. One of the worst scenarios I’ve encountered is a family member imprisoned in a family business because he has severe doubts that he could succeed in the outside business world. Also the younger generation family member may feel she deserves a position in the family business simply by being a member of the family.
In exploring this question, we are not minimizing or dismissing the family business. We want to explore how the younger generation member strengthens his capabilities for two reasons: 1) In answering the question of capabilities and preparation, the younger generation may discover a passion outside the family business or a passion inside the family business, thereby introducing the context of what makes the family member marketable in the general business world and/or how the family member gains skills that strengthen the family business. 2) Problems arise for the younger generation if the family business is viewed as the sole source of making a living because the family member lacks the confidence to work outside the family business.
How does the younger generation decide whether his plan for the future aligns with the future of the family business? An optimized plan for younger generations is for the senior generations to outline specific skill sets and educational objectives for positions within the family business.
The second reason can be and often is the source of severe family conflicts because if the older generation fails to plan or doesn’t disclose succession plans, the younger member will fight intensely, demanding that the family business meets his/her needs. This approach serves neither the family member nor the business. The family business must be designed to strengthen the family members and the business in a variety of ways.
The other issue for families in business is how the senior generation is handling transition and succession. Many times the plan is either non-existent or hidden because of a reluctance to bring the discussion into full view of the entire family. This reluctance may result from the fact that not all family members are involved in the family business. It may be due to the senior generation’s struggle with how to treat family members fairly. Many times the senior generation does not want to start a discussion that can result in conflict in the family. The flaw in that thinking is that there is a high likelihood of conflict if the senior generation does not take the lead in proactively mentoring the younger generations through the transition process.
However, the issue is: How does the younger generation decide whether his plan for the future aligns with the future of the family business? An optimized plan for younger generations is for the senior generations to outline specific skill sets and educational objectives for positions within the family business. This could be the discussion that allows subsequent conversations about what the senior generation is thinking about succession.
The younger generation should always remember to honor parents, founders or senior generations. Younger generations do not always appreciate how deeply ingrained the family business is in the senior generation, especially if the senior generation is the founding generation. Christian teaching on honoring parents is not a frivolous statement; it is foundational in wholesome family testimony to the world. The Christian distinctive provides avenues to honor family and maintain a business that perpetuates values that are everlasting.
One of the ways the younger generation honors the senior generation is to remove demands about planning for the future, replacing them with an open discussion of what is in the best interest of each family member and the family business. As children become adults, honoring is not defined as absolute obedience to the senior generation in all matters, because if adult children marry they must also honor their spouses. Also, I tell families in business it is useless to prevent spouses from being involved in the family business discussion table. The spouses are involved by virtue of the definition of marriage, which is one flesh. Boundaries may be set on what is discussed based on age and successful operation of the business but as the younger generation matures, the discussions become more comprehensive.
To summarize, if you are a college student considering entering the family business, here are some suggestions:
- Work for a summer somewhere other than at your family business. Discover what it is like to work for someone outside your family.
- Tell the senior generation your ideas about a career and ask to be mentored in your planning. Ask if there are specific educational objectives which will strengthen the family business.
- Talk to the Harding Waldron Center for Entrepreneurship and Family Business about resources and advisors that can assist you and your family in this critical discussion.
One of the greatest things about working in a family business is working with family. One of the most challenging things about working in a family business is working with family.
Grant Goodvin is an attorney and friend of the Waldron Center in Wichita, Kansas, where he operates Family Legacy Consultant Group.