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Change in family business

John Tucker  is a Grant Thornton Fellow in Family Business at the International Centre for Families in Business

I often use music and poetry in my work with families in business together, and an example would be the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording of Teach Your Children Well. But before explaining why I use this particular song I want to explore my experience of the 'change' phenomenon that seems to have swept across organisations.
 
In the 30 or so years that I have been involved in business, both running my own, working in someone else's and advising others on how to run theirs, I never cease to be amazed by the plethora of initiatives, projects and plans undertaken by organisations. I have lived through appraisals, both the common garden one-on-one, through to the suicidal 360% model. I have seen the competency and competence models of managing performance, through to empowerment and self-managing teams. I have been involved in outdoor management development through to the more esoteric mind games approach to management. I have seen fire-walking, the use of theatre, painting, poetry and even the army used to motivate and persuade people towards better performance. I have seen team building, team development and team destruction, ala The Office. I have seen downsizing, re-engineering, total quality, Investors in People and a myriad of other approaches from vision and mission to corporate culture and the learning organisation.
 
Organisations of all shapes and sizes have embraced the 'change' culture, spending millions chasing the elusive 'answer', looking for the quick fix and hoping the next management fad will bring the long-awaited results.
 
The family in business is no different. It too looks for the holy grail of change, how to get it right, how to find the most effective, fair, equitable and balanced way of transitioning from one state of ownership or management to the next.

So what is it all about? Why are organisations interested in developing people? Simple? Yes and no. Yes, organisations want to get the best out of people in order to boost sales, output and profit. And no, because in many ways all of this stuff in the year 2006 is not a comfortable habitat for managers charged with ensuring maximum performance and, even today, this is, in the main, a male position. Men do not find this stuff easy, much of it is right brain, intuitive, creative, touchy- feely and scary. It's about emotions and relationships, an arena most men fear.

So what has all this to do with families in business and, even more mysteriously, with a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song written many years ago? The Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, Teach Your Children Well says it all, it tells us why life in a family business is so totally different from life in any other form of business, particularly if you happen to be a member of the owning and/or managing family. The song suggests it's simple, don't ask questions, don't try to understand the parent-child relationship, just know that it is based on love. Parents are often intrigued by how closely their children resemble them, physically, emotionally and intellectually. Children are even more horrified to think that they may have anything in common with their parents, until well past their 30th birthday! Parents teach their children and often, in the context of the family business, children learn most, if not all, of their knowledge about the business from their parents. In my view the most difficult of relationship is that between father and son, and this is exacerbated when father and son are in business together. It is very difficult for a son to emancipate from his father (a critical task in becoming an adult), when the two work together and the son does not have his own universe to mature in. From a business perspective the son almost always has some independent ideas that differ from the father's even if it is purely from a a generational perspective.

Given the essentially emotional nature of family relationships, it would not be surprising if there were confusion about whether a son's actions were a form of rebellion rather than a reasoned disagreement over business issues. Sorting though this requires some understanding of the history of the father/son relationship, as well as the dynamics of the entire family constellation.

When family relationships, under normal circumstances difficult, complex and challenging, are transferred to the business environment the normal boundaries become blurred and obscure. And if you happen to be a professional intermediary or a management consultant working with a family in business you may start to wonder why you are not getting the results your undoubted professional talents demand.
 
In the context of a family in business, most, if not all, of the change, quality, people initiatives will fall at the first or second hurdle if we don't understand and consider the powerful relationship issues encountered when engaging with a family in business.

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