Melanie Stern is Section Editor of Families in Business magazine.
I'll Show Them Who's Boss,
BBC television series
It's appalling to see the feckless types that so often stumble accidentally into top management positions, whose advance into leadership is more about having nowhere else to go or a need to fill the position from the inside.
For a family business, the reasoning behind this cardinal management choice sin – the "gifting" of a cosy executive chair to one's brother or son without the needs of the business in mind, for instance – can be even more dire, as BBC2's first series of "I'll Show Them Who's Boss", involving no-nonsense corporate management guru Gerry Robinson coaching family businesses through troubled times, made painfully clear.
The first episode introduced us to the Vernon Road Dyeing Factory in Nottingham, England, run by father and son Henry and Richard Chaplin. Bought nine months previously by Henry, a business owner for the past 30 years, Vernon Road is sinking below serious debts and a hostile, apathetic workforce. Enter white knight Robinson. One wonders about his family business credentials; chairman of spirits giant Allied Domecq and Arts Council England, the closest his CV has been to a family concern was at the very beginning of his career, as a trainee accountant for then family-owned Lesney Products and car dealer Lex; the jobs that got him where he is today - the top seats at Granada and ITN, and now as chairman of Allied Domecq and the Arts Council England – are not bloodline businesses.
Robinson's view of family business is depressingly ill-fated. "On balance, family businesses do at some point fail because they do not give the opportunity to those genuinely able to come through and run them well," he purports. This casual denunciation turns out to be sadly prophetic. In his attempt to take the Alpha Male position, son Richard instead flails like a baited fish out of water, and an unholy mess ensues. After canvassing factory opinion, Gerry reports to Richard that his staff are scared of him, and he reacts with gnashers bared, inadvertently confirming why. Gerry suggests – and it is a simple notion - to remedy the lack of trust with consistency of approach. Richard unfortunately decides to enact this when planning a round of redundancies. Gathering the workers around him on the factory floor, he admits he has "made mistakes", but assures there will be no more redundancies. "We're going to work as a team now," he promises – but at the end of this cringeworthy sermon, he waits for applause, only to be met with the uncomfortably long silence of an unconvinced audience.
Sure enough, Richard makes a second round of layoffs just weeks later, including several new staff.
Suddenly happening upon the core of the problem as he sees it, Gerry tells Richard to "ever so nicely say goodbye" to his managing director, Jeff, whose job seems to be upsetting workers by stalking them, clipboard and short shirtsleeves at the ready. Richard complies but within a week, the MD is spied by workers padding the floors as usual, and Richard admits that he took him back on. "It is cretinous," a frazzled Gerry tells Richard afterwards, before delivering the final blow to the deluded successor. "I honestly believe that your skills are not in management." One feels that came a tad too late for both business and consultant.
"So what you are trying to say, without really saying it, is that I am not right for the MD's job?" Richard retorts. "I am not trying to be subtle. That is what I am saying," Gerry says.
To top it off, Richard reveals what is behind his misguided stance in an offhand comment about his father's previous management success. "You were hated in the last factory – the workers wanted to club you to death," he comments, puzzlingly. "But after 30 years you gained their respect." It is obvious that his attempt to carbon copy daddy's management style as a fool-proof plan to success only jarred with the workers; a three-decade-long chance to turn it around looks highly unlikely.
Families in Business readers will know that neutral business-minded decisions on successorship don't always feature where family ownership are concerned. This first episode of the first series of "…Boss" is a classic example of old-school family nepotism and how it can drag a business to the ground. As the all-powerful Gerry concludes: "Usually people get into management positions because they have the capacity to lead. With ownership, you can buy into something and have everyone's life in your hands, even if you are incapable of managing it. That is what happened here." In this case, the owner might as well have bequeathed the business to his dog.