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Double-edged sword

Charles Sasse is president of the Belgian Association for Psychotherapy. He now practices as a psychoanalyst and consultant.

Parental expectations and tradition can be a heavy mantle for heirs to inherit. Charles Sasse examines the issues that affect business families from the cradle to succession, and offers insights, practical as well as psychological, into how to lighten the load

What would Hamlet have said to a consultant about the role that his father intended him to fill? Did he dream of not being born into this "family business"? Perhaps he could not see any other, less dramatic, solutions to his situation.

Succession is a vital step in the prosperous continuity of the business and the harmony of the family. Most founders and managers would be happy to be succeeded by a member of their family, but few of them take the necessary time to plan and organise this transition and even fewer incorporate this possibility into the education and training of their children.

Many factors will influence the direction an heir's life will take in this unusual context. Factors inherent in each family and the way in which these develop must be taken into account. In the past, the weight of traditions and customs produced an automatic response: the eldest male child would succeed his father and be either a good business manager or a good golfer.

These days, managing a business successfully requires considerable skills and advanced training, in the interest of the business and its shareholders. Our Western culture promotes individualism. Personal development and self-realisation have replaced sacrifice for the common good and duty to the family. Separations and remarriages introduce further possibilities.

Other professions and other careers can seem more attractive or less demanding. Women have long been sidelined, from both the business and the strategic decisions pertaining to it (although they have often been a decisive influence behind the scenes). Their active participation at all levels has now changed the old model of father-son succession for the better. However, for a daughter to succeed her father or for a son to succeed his mother is certainly no less complex.

Laïos, Oedipus and Antigone have made a great contribution to tragedy and also to psychoanalysis. A psychoanalytical approach can help identify the issues and difficulties of what may prove to be either destiny or doom.

Unconscious factors do play a greater role than conscious ones. Our behaviour and our choices are dependent on our world view. Our fantasies and mental representations are marked by the influences of parents, families and society. They condition the way in which we see a reality and therefore our conceptions of relations between men and women and between parents and children, of how we relate to money and wealth as well as our notions of sharing. All our relations with others are influenced in this way, including our relations with family members and people who work in the business.

Habits formed by our social circle in addition to cultural codes have a considerable influence on the way in which the child (and later the adult) sees the outside world and his position in that world. Similarly, comments by parents and relatives will condition his reflection and representations. There are consequences to being called "the son of …" or being labelled as "the man who's going to follow in his father's footsteps" or "the sister of the man who's going to follow in his father's footsteps".

Human beings can only exist psychologically through their relations with others; they must continue to position themselves as an individuality and as one of many. The human condition is characterised by competing as well as complementary desires: the desire to be recognised by others and the recognition of one's own desire.
So, the parents' representations about their child will direct his choices; is the child seen as an extension of themselves or can he be different and independent? Many parents would like their child to accomplish what they themselves failed to do, or expect them to carry out missions of reparation. Others demand that their child continue his parents' path in life. We must not forget that through their child, parents relive their own childhood and their own choice of lifestyle and profession.

The child can only achieve fulfilment and psychological development if he can express his desires and feelings. Identity requires opposition; if this is to be constructive and enriching, it must be expressed in a family environment characterised by respect, confidence, openness and exchange of views. The child must be able to say "yes" without repressed ­aggressiveness and "no" without guilt, or in more Freudian terms, dare to surpass the father and betray the mother.

All too often, differences of opinion become sterile conflicts or result in submission where guilt leads to frustration and lasting hatred. A child whose desire is smothered and who has no choice but to obey his parents' desire, can present many signs of psychological disturbance.

However, we know that working as a family brings joy, and that being surrounded by those whom you love and who love you brings a feeling of strength. We also stress the importance of everyone's happiness and self-fulfilment. Consequently, education and communication are the principal methods for preventing the family doom.

Education begins even before birth in so far as the child's story is written by the parents' desires and expectations. Family values are passed down by education and values that also apply to the business and that ensure the family's cohesion. Every family stresses certain values; the children must be confronted with them in order that they may live them, discuss them and so take them on in their turn.

Children quickly form their own notion of the company and the profession. They must therefore be given information enabling them to have a picture of what the future holds if they agree to the succession. From childhood, a playful approach to the company must be promoted, encouraging visits to the site, discussion about the business at school and an appreciation of the products made or the services provided.

However, it is important to give a realistic picture. Children are quick to understand that because of the business, their father comes home late and tired, their parents are under stress and family plans are often changed. The children will be influenced by the way in which the parents live with the business. Stress, anger or depression will not go unnoticed and will create a tenacious mental representation.
Nor is the business eternal; ensuring its survival requires time and effort. This fact is sometimes forgotten when it is taken for granted that the business will continue throughout their lives. Today's world changes rapidly; uncertainties about the future do not encourage the child to worry about a far-off succession. Early and rigorous planning is necessary, however. After all, developing leadership and communication skills, learning foreign languages, undergoing management training and increasing his self-confidence will be of use to the child even if he does not inherit the business.

The child must be able to develop his potential for creation, assert his own desire and construct an identity, which is more solid and therefore more complex than if he was restricted to only one authorised, expressible personality. Being raised in a predefined role, which is often identical to the image of his parent, weakens the self. The heir is transformed into a sort of "curator of the family museum" where any change is seen as a betrayal and inhibited by guilt. This mask-like identity conceals an internal void.

One feature of the lives of children who enter the business is that they do the opposite of their friends; at the age when young people move away from the family universe to live their own lives, these children return to involve themselves more deeply in the family, tightening their links with their parents. This problem must be taken into account.

Throughout the long training process, the heirs must be able to rely on the opinions and advice of people outside the family. An external administrator who is close to the family may be an effective and more impartial mentor; later, during the child's first steps in the business, this role may be filled by a trusted senior manager. Understanding the conscious and unconscious reasons for a choice makes us realise that we are responsible for our own lives and prevents us from blaming others when things do not go smoothly.

Good communication is the second vital component. First and foremost in communication is the ability to listen: listen and so understand the fears, doubts and wishes of each member of the family. Many business leaders are more aware of their clients' expectations than those of their future successor. Many parents believe they understand their children completely, and many children think their parents know everything. So no one actually says anything.

It is essential to be able to ask questions, express hopes, fears and causes of pain and frustration – and this is not restricted to the business. Guilt over not complying with other people's expectations constitutes a serious obstacle to true, sincere communication. The pressure exercised by the family can be strong and prevent the child thinking that possibilities other than succession do exist. It can also be insidious, as when the parents refer to how much they have sacrificed so that the child can one day take up the reins of the business.
Guilt and the desire not to disappoint others force the child to accede against their own wishes. The repercussions are just as disastrous for the business. The successor will find it difficult to carry out the role of leader. Lack of interest and insufficient authority will create tensions dangerous for the business. Acting for the wrong reasons, he will make bad strategic decisions; even worse, an attitude ­influenced by aggression towards his parents or the business, or even by suicidal tendencies, will cause him to take excessive risks or act in ways detrimental to the interests of the business.

Succession must not be a taboo. Parents and children, however, are inclined to repress a problem and in this way try to protect the family from conflict. Unfortunately, the difficulties are amplified by everything left unsaid. Parents and children do not necessarily have the same ideas about life and work. They must accept this fact and face up to it. It is a good sign.
Another trap typical of family businesses is the confusion between roles in the family and roles in the business. In all communication, it is necessary to understand who is talking and to whom. The family often fails to give sufficient weight to the changes in personality that come with the onset of maturity. How a child is labelled when young has a lasting impact. This is often trivial and inconsequential but sometimes, when comments heard during childhood are absorbed into the unconscious, they can form an identity trap that is difficult to get past.

It is essential that the successor has had the opportunity to form a fair idea of what awaits him, the necessary training and occasion to fulfil himself in another business prior to his succession. The ­impression, whether true or false, of having been prevented from setting up his own company can niggle at an heir. Therefore, where possible he must be able to carry out his own objectives before thinking of taking on the family business.

Other reasons can also delay this decision. The successor may be waiting for the parent to make a move or change attitude towards him, or further details on the succession or boundaries of competence. Finally, he may be waiting for the parent to accept that he will have his own style of management. In fact, succeeding does not imply following in father's footsteps, but rather finding one's own way of running the business. Every business leader has his own characteristics and his own vision; the visions of each generation must be compatible and complementary, but there is no need for them to be identical.

Finally, the successor must know that other options exist, such as the total or partial sale of the business, bringing in external managers and so on. What is certain is that the business deserves leaders who are trained and motivated, the family deserves happiness and well-being and one day the question of whether family or business has priority may arise.

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