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Articles - Family Life in Family -Business

Family Business -- When is it time to let Jr. run the show

Thursday, January 05, 1995




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


"The acorn doesn't fall very far from the tree," as the old saying goes. Fathers have for centuries taken great pride in their sons' accomplishments as they groomed them for adult life. Likewise for centuries sons have worked hard to earn their fathers' respect and eventually earn the privilege of manhood. In the family-owned-firm this familial pattern has evolved into sons going to work for their fathers and eventually taking over responsibility, management and even ownership of the family business. In spite of the anthropological significance of this rite of passage, the transition from son to president of the company, or from child to man is not a simple one in our modern world. The fallout from a poorly planned transition can be financial loss and alienation of family members. The key to making the transition successful is recognizing the developmental needs of all parties concerned, the father, the son and the business. Two researchers, John Davis and Renato Taguiri in 1989 studied family-owned-firms to discover the influence of life stages on the work relationship of fathers and sons. Interestingly they found that age and stage of life of both father and son does have a powerful impact on the relationship and on this transition from child to man. For example, when a father is in his forties and his son is between 17 and 22, the relationship is relatively problematic. A man in his forties realizes that there is an end to life and begins to question his accomplishments. There is an urgency to make changes, to correct one's mistakes before time runs out, to prepare a legacy to leave behind (i.e., the family business). In other words men in their early forties are facing the mid-life crisis and generally pour themselves into their work. They are very controlling of their destinies at this stage and don't take kindly to suggestions from a youngster right out of college. The son, on the other hand is in the stage of life where he is still in the process of separating from the family. This separation is a necessary component of growing up. Without it, the child cannot learn who he is separate from his parents. Conflicts with father are common and emotionally charged at this time. And going to work for father at this stage of life is like extending childhood to a young man, which he can hardly tolerate. However, as the father moves into his fifties and the son is between age 23 and 33, the working relationship becomes harmonious. In fact fathers and sons both report that the best working relationship during the entire period of working together occurs when the father is between 51 and 60 and the son is between 23 and 33. This period of time for the fathers is a period of tranquility. They have weathered the mid-life crisis and their sons coming of age. Now their goal is to use reason instead of control to run the company and their lives. They still want to maintain the "old" ways but they are much more willing to negotiate. Men at this stage have proven themselves and are now less competitive, less condemning of others, have less need for possessions, and they are more attentive to relationships, including their sons' developmental needs. Sons between 23 and 33 are not particularly emotionally stable. However, this is a good time for fathers and sons because the son needs a mentor. The sons are experimenting with life, work and relationships in an effort to find their true calling. An older man who can guide them in the process is welcomed because the son feels extreme pressure to grow up, now! Since father is no longer so competitive and is even inclined to encourage his son's development, the son can feel free to nurture his dreams and develop mastery in an area. By the age of 30 to 33 the son has made a commitment to marriage and a career. It is during this stage of development that fathers are able to give their sons recognition for their accomplishments. Again the shift away from harmony and toward problems occurs as the father enters his sixties and the son is in his forties. Men in their sixties are facing retirement even if they own their own firm and expect to work until their death. At this age men are aware of their decline and the eventual loss of meaningful activity. Many fathers at this stage are unwilling to turn over the family business to their sons because of this fear of death. They have a strong need to still demonstrate their skills and authority during this period. At the same time that fathers are facing aging and decline, their sons are facing the mid-life crisis. The sons have a strong need to re-evaluate their relationships. They no longer want a mentor. Rather they want recognition, advancement and security. They resent reporting to father. They feel held back by father and annoyed by his "old fashioned" ideas. As the sons feel more confidence in their role as a competent man and authority figure, they may challenge their fathers more, causing considerable strife in the work place.

Quality relationships between fathers and sons don't just depend on life stage, however. They also depend on understanding, communication and planning. Davis and Taguiri for example, found that the sons they studied were more aware of the problematic relationships than were the fathers. There could be many explanations for this phenomenon, such as the possibility that the fathers discount tension in the relationship because they feel more responsibility for the way things are. Another explanation is that the person with the least power is often more aware of the tension in relationships. In any case, both parties need to be aware and communicate about their life stage and that of the other. Fathers who retire gracefully from their firms have developed a succession plan that takes into consideration the developmental needs of both parties. When the son is mature and competent to run the business he should be allowed to do so. However, the father does not have to give up his life. As the son assumes the presidency, the father can become chairman of the board. Some retiring CEOs turn their creativity to other projects such as a community endeavor or even another entrepreneurial venture. Also young men should be encouraged to "find themselves" outside of the family business. If they never separate from father, they will never really trust their competency as adults. Extending adolescence by working for Dad during the teen years and early twenties does not prepare a man to take over the presidency at age 42. Many successful family-owned-firms encourage their sons to work for competitors or in other industries before they are allowed to take a position in the family business. By the time the son returns to the family business, he knows that he can make it on his own. Then he puts that confidence to work for the family. The ability to work for one's father is one of the most rewarding experiences a child can have. In one study, researcher Ann Patrick-Lemay found that offspring of entrepreneurs report the number one benefit of working for their fathers is the chance to have a close and meaningful relationship. This was even more meaningful than salary or career advancement. If fathers and sons can keep these findings in mind as they negotiate through the years together in the family business, they will have much more success weathering their own and each others' developmental crises.