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Helping Family Businesses
Prosper Across Generations®

Don't Fire the Apprentice!

When Steve Irwin, aka The Crocodile Hunter, died recently, adventure lovers around the globe mourned his passing.  But, they were also introduced to a new Irwin – Bindi.  In one of the more unusual family-business succession stories, eight-year-old Bindi will star in her own series, Bindi, the Jungle Girl, on the Discovery Kids network.

When we think of family-owned businesses, there are lots of examples that come to mind.  They may be big—like  Ford—or part of your local community—the car dealer, neighborhood deli or jeweler.  But if you look closely, you may find family businesses in some unexpected places.

Politics, for instance.  Most people are familiar with the legacy of families like the Kennedys, Bushes and Gores.  But, did you know that more than 50 U.S. Senators or Representatives are (as reported by USA Today) closely related to governors or other members of Congress?

Or preaching. Will Graham, grandson of Billy Graham, preached to his first large US audience recently in his home state of North Carolina. He has recently joined the family business as assistant director of the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove in Asheville NC.

Or race car driving.  Think of the Unsers, Earnhardts, Pettys and Andrettis, to name a few.

What do all these family businesses have in common?  For one, they passed on a passion for their businesses to the next generation.  And important knowledge and skills were passed on as well.  Many of these next-generation members served as apprentices, either formally or informally, to their parents.  When the New York Times questioned Jack Carter’s experience in running for a US Senate seat because he had never held an elected position, he cited his experience campaigning for his father, former President Jimmy Carter.

In days gone by, the apprenticeship model used to be the way that skills and knowledge were passed on. This model has disappeared for the most part and has been replaced by formal education.  In fact, many family businesses have formal employment policies that require family members to graduate from college and work outside the business before entering. 

While there are great benefits to experience outside the business, we should not overlook the value of the apprenticeship model.  Earlier generations have valuable knowledge to pass along.  If a family becomes too consumed by the notion that family members must have experience outside, they may deny the next generations the benefits of learning from their elders. 

At the same time, this experience must be balanced by a desire to go out into the world to learn different ways of doing things.  The outside experience that the next generation can bring back may be invaluable in revitalizing the business and carrying it into the next generation.  And the opportunity to learn and make mistakes outside of the family business spotlight can be valuable as well.

So how can you balance the desire to allow family members to learn outside the business with the need to pass on valuable skills and experience? 

1.    Start early.  Valuable information about the business can be passed on to children as young as five or six years old.  Telling stories about family history and values can set the stage for a long-term interest in the business.
2.    Create an education program.  Many family businesses have a structured education program for next-generation members.  During these programs, youth and teenagers learn business fundamentals, family history and team-building skills. 
3.    Create a family employment policy that allows room for exposure to the business.  Even if you will require family members to work outside the business before formally joining (which we strongly recommend), you can still provide opportunities for summer jobs and internships during high school and college.
4.    Find learning opportunities outside the normal business day.  While family members in their early twenties may be working outside the business, they can still have opportunities to interact with the senior generation at family meetings or even as observers at board meetings. 
5.    Develop a structured succession plan.  Once next-generation family members enter the business and show some promise in moving up the ladder, work with them to develop a succession plan that outlines the skills and experience that they will need to move forward.  Some of this experience will be gained by doing a job themselves.  But some may be gained by sitting down with their elders to understand how they make decisions.  For instance, elder family members could invite younger members in the business to a meeting with bankers, lawyers or accountants. 

A healthy balance of experience inside and outside the business often will help to create the most qualified candidate to take over the business some day.  The key is balance.  Leaning too far in one direction or the other can cause unintended negative consequences.  The consequences of spending one’s entire career in the family business are discussed often.  But the consequences of ignoring the valuable skills and experience of the prior generations aren’t always considered.

 
 

 

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