Dear Coach Alan,
I own and lead a profitable company. I am 55 years old, healthy, and have lots of interests outside my business. I see myself retiring in the next 5 to 7 years. My question is, should I hire my son and develop him to take over my business? My son is 29 and has a good job. He has expressed interest in someday joining my company. But I have heard horror stories about sons entering into a business with their father, and I am concerned about damaging our relationship.
Is it worth bringing him on board, knowing these risks?
–A Concerned Dad
To my readers: I will be responding to this question from the perspective of a father and son. This could have as easily been a mother and son or daughter, or a father and daughter. My response would not be materially different in any of the above scenarios.
Dear Concerned Dad,
It is natural to want to bring your son into the business. This is a great succession plan for you and your son. There is a great deal of comfort in handing over the reins of the company to someone you trust and who can carry on your legacy. It is also comforting to know that your son will have an opportunity to earn a good living and continue to grow the company that you founded.
That being said, you have good reason to be concerned. There have been some very difficult battles fought between father and son in the same business. They have not always turned out well. The transfer of leadership and ownership is difficult in itself; family dynamics add a whole new emotional dimension that needs to be carefully orchestrated. To start, you need to be certain that your son has both the passion and the ability to succeed you. Once this has been determined, you will need to create a developmental plan so he can learn the business. This plan should include both leadership and knowledge of the business. Five to seven years is a good lead time to accomplish this.
A coach can offer guidance through the transition in a number of ways. First, there is the decision of whether to hire your son. Does he have the “right stuff”? I am a strong advocate of using assessments to measure a variety of personal attributes, including personality, leadership style, intelligence, and critical thinking skills. You may also want to have conversations with your son to assess his passion for the business–or at least his willingness to eventually lead it. Of all the opportunities that present themselves to an intelligent and resourceful young man, is your business where he really wants to stake his career? While he may have the skills needed to run your business, he really needs to want to be there. You may only hope he will bring a vision to the business that will help to grow it to the next level.
I have a client who joined his father’s growing business. It was clear the son had a passion. He also had skills in both leadership and the technical side of the business. This should have been enough for his success, right? Not so. Father and son fought incessantly over strategy. The father had been very successful and wanted to continue his strategy for growing the business. The son, on the other hand, felt the father’s strategy was no longer viable. He wanted to grow the company in a different direction. The battles were often played out in front of employees, who were not always sure which of the two to support.
Through coaching, it was possible to help the son to leverage his talents, which were abundant. His father, while not necessarily trusting his son’s approach to the business, did give him some leeway to assert his strategy. The father’s public displays of disagreement diminished as he took more time off for travel and vacationing, sometimes for months at a time. However, it wasn’t until the father decided to retire that the son was fully able to implement his strategy. Coaching was a key factor in helping the son manage his way through the rough waters of transferring leadership and ownership from father to son. This coaching gave the son both support and a sounding board to cope with the stress with his father.
In another succession from father to son, the son had come into the business right out of college. He ran the sales department, but more and more, the father involved the son in key strategic decisions. One day, the father told the son that he was retiring in six months. He promoted his son to president, handing over leadership responsibility for the entire company. Six months later, he walked into his son’s office and stated that he was giving up his office. His rationale was that as long as he was there, managers and workers would come to his office rather than his son’s office. I had been coaching the father, who made me promise to coach the son after he left. I did, and the son and I worked together to help him grow the company until it was sold several years later.
The message here is that every situation is different. Some transitions are rocky; others are smooth. Personality and temperament play a big role here. Rationality sometimes takes a back seat to emotion. What was constant in both of the above cases was the desire by the father to develop the son, the passion of the son to take over the business, and the coaching that smoothed out many of the wrinkles in a not-so-perfect handoff of authority and ownership.
My advice to you, if you should decide to hire your son, is to find a coach experienced in family businesses to work with you and your son. While not a guarantee of success, coaching will increase the odds of a successful transition while maintaining a positive relationship between father and son.