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Helping Family Businesses
Prosper Across Generations®

"Letting Go" is a Two-Way Street

By Craig Aronoff, Ph.D.

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Succession problems are usually characterized as the parental generation's struggle to let go of authority, responsibility and control-passing the baton to the next generation. And certainly, those problems can be dauntingly real and frightening to almost all business owning parents.

We find that a parent's greatest fear is loss of power in the family. What happens if a family is in conflict or a family member is in need? Parents often feel that keeping control of the business and its purse strings provides extra strength in addressing potential family problems.

But we believe succession-and "letting go" in particular-is a two-way street. One family business successor's insights clarified the lesson for us.

"I finally got it! It was my expectations that made the power struggle so painful for me," he explained. "My parents rightly were upset by my expectations of them. And the longer I held on to those expectations, the more they fought letting go."

He then describes several expectations that we found shockingly familiar and widespread among next generation members of business owning families. They include:

  • Entitlement-the expectation that the next generation deserves what the parents have.
  • Fairness-the expectation that parents should treat each sibling clearly equally.
  • Perfection-the expectation that the parents should take all the initiative and provide all the wisdom in letting go.
  • Responsibility-the expectation that parents should straighten out conflicts among the offspring.

Parents who have these expectations of themselves or who accept them from their children inevitably face great frustration. Next generation members who cling to these expectations retard their own growth and development.

Even as they complain of inadequate progress toward succession, next generation actions can subvert the process. Each time one sibling complains to parents about another, succession is slowed. Every time siblings need parental help to solve problems among themselves, they slow succession. Every time a member of the next generation asks parents for financial resources to help support lifestyle or personal need, succession slows.

Part of succession-and personal maturity-is "letting go" of the expectations one has towards one's parents.

When successors hold four beliefs, we find that they are able to "let go" of problematic expectations. Then they can more comfortably negotiate the inevitable trials of generational transition.

They:

  1. Appreciate that their parents are not perfect;
  2. Accept parents for who they are...with respect...and love;
  3. Understand that life isn't fair; and
  4. Assume personal responsibility for their own life, security, and identity.

We aren't sure which comes first, but we find that parents' ability to let go of power correlates with the next generation's ability to let go of emotional expectations of their parents. As one successor concludes, "when I assume personal responsibility for who I am and for my own success, my parents can't wait to support me. They seem to draw on my strength. It helps them."


Who Can "Let Go"?

Parents "let go" best when they are economically secure and believe that stewardship creates a duty that they pass the business to future generations.

Children "let go" best when they are competent, self-reliant, and eager to assume leadership responsibility.

 

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