Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

Daughter: Mom, you’re not hearing me!

Mom: Julie, it’s just that you’ve been part of this business for so many years. 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.

Pulled by conflicting responsibilities, Julie reflects on her conversation with her mom; “Am I forever going to be bound by their wishes and filled with guilt if I don’t fulfill their dreams? And what about my own family and their needs – or mine?”

The dynamics between Julie and her parents are intense and complex. Family members set up expectations of one another based upon relationships from a generation past, and from Mom and Dad’s perspective they are offering Julie a wonderful opportunity that the business could all be hers. Though Julie fears she is bound by her parents’ wishes, Mom and Dad are actually setting themselves up to be dependent upon Julie’s decision. And, for Julie, guilt and pressure abound, as Dad’s ill health and Mom’s ageing compound the situation.

The circumstances make it difficult for everybody to think clearly about all the issues they are confronting. Mom puts an inordinate amount of pressure on herself and Julie as she tries to figure out how to resolve the problem of business succession. Julie gets caught in a bind between her responsibility to herself and her sense of obligation to her parents. Julie faces the further dilemma of recognizing that this could be a wonderful opportunity and, at the same time, feeling an overpowering responsibility for fulfilling her parents’ needs and preserving what could be the family’s most cherished asset, the family business.

How could this scenario have been avoided?

Succession planning needs to occur early in the life of a family business to avoid crisis situations like this one. When Mom and Dad are in their forties and/or the kids are in their twenties, it is not too early to start planning. Alternatives to family succession can also be explored, be they a non-family CEO, an ESOP, an outright sale, or liquidation.

Children, even as adults, do not want to disappoint their parents, but Laura’s decision on 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, Julie 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.



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