After graduating from Wharton a few months ago and traveling around Europe all summer, Michael, the 25-year old son of a successful second-generation businessman, walked into the kitchen to have breakfast with his mother and father. Today was to be his official introduction into the family business, and although his job and salary were as yet undefined, he was about to make the first of a series of plant tours and meet some of the employees.
“Go back upstairs and put on a suit and tie,” his father said. Taken aback and slightly embarrassed, Michael turned to go back upstairs and change clothes. “You’re lucky you don’t have to look for a job in this terrible market,” his mother called after him.
Despite his mother’s statement, Michael decided on his way up the stairs that he would not join the family business. He found employment elsewhere.
Welcoming a family member into the business is neither easy, nor as automatic a process as many people assume. But families can take some important steps to make the process smoother and more certain. These steps, which should be implemented years in advance, seem so simple and obvious that it’s a wonder more families don’t do them. Perhaps because the steps are so obvious, they’re often overlooked.
Communicate welcome. Given universal differences between adolescents and parents, it’s a safe bet that, unknown to each other, children and parents are operating under different assumptions. Parents, assuming their children will someday take their place in the company, may forget to let their offspring know that they are indeed welcome. Some children may have been thinking for years that they’re joining the business simply because they are family. Other children may not be certain they want to enter the family business, but have never had the encouragement or courage to state that.
Ongoing communication about bringing a child into the business must begin years ahead of time. Parents must realize that communication is a two-way process and quite different from indoctrination: Parents should communicate excitement about their children someday coming into the business. Make them feel welcomed, but, at the same time, leave room for them to express doubts or other preferences. Welcoming a child can have the unintended effect of coercion, and that kind of setup is likely to end badly. Think of welcoming as laying out a doormat, not as lassoing and yanking them in.
Sometimes children simply do not want to enter the family business, and if their reasons are good ones (in other words, not due to misperceptions about themselves or about how others feel about their coming in), parents must honor those reasons and make it clear that choosing not to enter the family business, while disappointing, is a valid understandable option.
Project the business as an exciting, special place. Many parents, too frequently, bring their business conflicts, worries, problems and pressures home and then, years later, they’re surprised when their now-grown children seem less than enthusiastic about joining the company. Remember to discuss the joys, the accomplishments and fulfillments of work. Make work sound exciting and interesting. (And if it’s not fulfilling, exciting and interesting, why would you want your child to someday enter that world?)
Make opportunities for participation early. The family business should not be a place of mystery to children. Bring the young ones to the office occasionally. Offer part-time jobs to school-age children. This will naturally draw them closer to careers in the business.
Make rules for participation. As children grow older, making clear rules about participation will either help increase their commitment or expose their ambivalence. Either outcome is important. Effective verbal contracts between family members lie at the heart of family business and help prevent the messy emotional uproars that benefit neither the business nor the family. Rules should be clear and concrete. Will the child be required to earn a Master’s degree? If not, what other steps will be required to ensure that the child enters the business prepared? Will they enter a vacant post or one specially created for them? If the child chooses to try another profession instead of entering the family business, at what age will the option of entry be foreclosed? This, of course, should not be presented as a threat, but as an aid to help the children clarify their paths and decision.
Start laying out the welcome mat early and presenting the family business as a fulfilling option, but leave room to listen to your child’s fears and doubts, as well as to their excitement. Remember that many children do not fulfill their parents’ dream for them in the ways that parents hope they will, but instead fulfill their parents’ dreams in unexpected ways.