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Helping Family Businesses
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An Invitation to Address Transition Fears

By Drew Mendoza

We are often contacted by next generation family business members who are baffled by the state of emotional chaos into which their family and business rapidly descend as issues around succession or transfer of ownership come up meaningfully for the first time. These individuals are perplexed that their parents, whom they perceive as otherwise very intelligent, thoughtful and rational, become incapable of even the most basic decisions around issues that touch the business and family’s future—and for which any rational person will agree some sort of clear and thoughtful planning is required!

What we often point out to the next generation is that if you put yourself in the shoes of the senior generation, you may appreciate that it is normal that they would be reticent or even resistant to discussing transitions that affect so many facets of their lives. We point out that these issues typically first come up meaningfully when they are approaching the later part of their lives: they may be worried about their financial security, they may have few outside interests and unsure of what to do with their time, they may also have a spouse who isn’t eager to have them just hanging around the house, etc. In addition, it is important to remember that being the boss comes with prestige that most enjoy: people look up to you and are eager to hear your input on various matters, etc.
 
While reminding the next generation of why this process is hard for the seniors is helpful in building some sympathy and understanding, it doesn’t offer much help on how to move the process forward. To that end, we do have many concrete suggestions, too.
 
One approach we have often recommended is to write a heartfelt letter from all the adult members of the next generation to all the members of the senior generation. The core message of this letter is to stress how much the younger generation is grateful to the seniors for all they have built and accomplished for the family. Stress that their work has given many opportunities to the entire family and that their example has taught all in your generation so much about hard work, the importance of stewardship and responsibility, etc. State that your generation feels it is their duty and passion to continue in the footsteps of their elders to assure the continuity of the enterprise they built. Stress your commitment to do this in a manner that protects the long-term integrity of the business and the family. Express a hope that the seniors will entrust you to do this, and to that end, invite them to attend a family meeting where everyone’s wishes and concerns around the future transition could be aired.
 
This approach doesn’t always work, but it can be an excellent way to start the conversation in a non-threatening manner. The key is to authentically stress your gratitude for all that has been accomplished by the seniors, and to stress the unity the next generation has in wanting to perpetuate this legacy for future generations.
 

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