…A part-time commitment is not a life sentence

So, You’re in the Family Business… by Paul  Karofsky Daughter: Mom, you’re not hearing me!

Mom: Laura, it’s just that you’ve been part of this business for so many years. You were always such a natural. Even when you were a baby, you were filled with personality. Our employees and suppliers all love you. And though your dad’s health has been improving, he may never fully recover. I’m not getting any younger either and it’s awfully hard to muster up the energy we need in this economy. How can I convince you that you should take over the business for us?

Daughter: But, Mom, I’ve told you before, I really like working just part-time and keeping my freedom for Bob and our kids. I really don’t think “taking over” for you and dad is what I want to do.

Mom: You may be our youngest child, Laura, but you were always the closest to us and we could always work things out. Your brother and sister live so far away. Now you’re the only one we can turn to. Everything we’ve worked so hard for could all be yours. We just need you to say, “yes!” It would make us so happy and proud of you. Our only other choice is to sell the business.

With feelings of tremendous burden and pain, Laura reflects on her conversation with her mom, “I’ve heard this all before. They put such incredible pressure on me. Can’t I live my own life? Am I forever going to be dependent on their wishes and filled with guilt if I don’t fulfill their dreams? I know that roles can change as children grow up, but does my responsibility as a daughter require that I should “take over” the family business even if I don’t want to? Is this what I must do to “honor my father and mother?”

The dynamics between Laura and her parents are intense and complex. How can they be explained?

1. Expectations from a generation past…

When “times are tough” and there is stress in the family business, the roles of family members tend to take on similar characteristics to those from earlier years. Family members set up expectations of one another based upon relationships from a generation past. Mom and Dad maintain their vision of Laura and expect that she will respond positively to their request as Mom reminds Laura how she “was always a natural…filled with personality.” Laura is further reminded that she is the “closest” and the “youngest,” and from Mom and Dad’s perspective they are offering Laura a wonderful opportunity that the business could all be hers.

2. Who is the parent and who is the child…

A curious reversal of roles develops between Laura and her parents. Though Laura fears herself to be dependent on her parents’ wishes, ironically, Mom and Dad are really setting themselves up to be dependent upon Laura’s decision. And, for Laura, guilt and pressure abound, as Dad’s ill health and Mom’s ageing compound the situation. Does the child now control the destiny of the parents? “How can I convince you?” is Mom’s expression of adolescent-like single, self mindedness and determination without attention to Laura’s desires. And Laura, in response to the pressure she feels, chides her mom in parent-like fashion, “You’re not hearing me” and “…like I’ve told you before…”

3. Must it be all or nothing?…

The power of the situation makes it difficult for everybody to be able to think clearly about all the issues they are confronting. For example, Mom puts an inordinate amount of pressure on herself and Laura as she tries to figure out how to resolve the problem of business succession. Laura gets caught in a bind between her responsibility to herself and her sense of obligation to her parents and to the potential impact of this decision on her relationship with her brother and sister. Laura faces the further dilemma of seeing how this could be a wonderful opportunity and, at the same time, an overpowering burden with the implicit responsibility of taking care of her parents and preserving what could be the family’s most cherished asset, the family business. And the implications of failing to meet all the desired outcomes is very serious for Laura in her relationship with her nuclear family, her parents and her siblings as well.

What can families in business together do to prevent situations from getting to this point? What can families do to ease these problems?

A. Plan well in advance…

Succession planning really needs to occur early in the life of a family business to help avoid crisis situations like that of Laura and her parents. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to achieve results that are satisfying to all. When Mom and Dad are in their forties and/or the kids are in their twenties, it is not too early to start planning. Just because one or more children may work in the family business, either full-time or part-time, does not mean that family ownership and leadership succession to a family member are implicit. Alternatives to family succession can be explored, be they a non-family CEO, an ESOP, an outright sale, or possibly liquidation.

B. Explore the underlying issues…

Children, even as adults, do not want to disappoint their parents. Frequently, they straddle a delicate line between meeting their parents’ expectations in an attempt to keep them happy, and satisfying their own individual dreams, goals and values by doing what they want. Laura’s decision whether or not to take over the family business cannot be made simply to please her parents. The family members need to recognize that boundaries are appropriate for Mom and Dad, Laura and her nuclear family, and the family business. And in a family business, it is not always possible to completely satisfy the needs of all.

Paul Karofsky was president of his family’s third generation business.  He completed graduate studies at Harvard University doing research in family communication styles.  Paul is Executive Director Emeritus of Northeastern University’s Center for Family Business and facilitates its Leadership Development Forum.  He is the Founder and CEO of Transition Consulting Group, Ltd and is a frequent speaker and resource to educational institutions worldwide.  Paul consults to family enterprises and can be reached at [email protected] or 561-626-1110.

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