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Parenting adult children: the recipe for success


Kevin J Fleming, PhD, is a consulting psychologist and performance coach to family businesses around the world. He is based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Parenting any child can be stressful and demanding, but it can be even worse when the child is an adult and working in the family business. How can you successfully parent without the company being affected? Kevin J Fleming gives his top 10 tips …

A dictionary definition of a boundary is "something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent". When it comes to the complex task of managing a family business, learning how to initiate and reinforce this definition is often difficult due to the many hats that are worn by the individuals involved – "son, father, sister" become blurred with "chairman, manager, director". And the perception of when one hat is on and the other is off is equally troublesome when one of the individuals has to take action.

In many cases, family businesses that best navigate this situation establish healthy psychological boundaries before the business is launched. When this has been successfully accomplished – when the patriarch, for example, is known as both a father and the president – emotional responses to family grievances can be divorced from essential business concerns, as the boundary has been integrated with little conflict in the offspring's mind.

When boundaries have not been established well in the early years (perhaps due to spoiling of children, fractional marriages, psychiatric issues or low emotional intelligence), the family business owner will be in a sticky situation of having to figure out how to communicate business matters to a "professional adult" with unresolved emotional issues from childhood.

What can one do at these psychologically inconvenient times when the needs of both business and emotional success need to be simultaneously understood? Here are 10 top tips:

1. Utilise the "match & move"
Often in times of stress, we automatically go into fix-it mode and attempt to control the outcome. This is the opposite of what is needed when an adult leader is speaking to the adult child. Enquire first and foremost as to what value or goal they are actually trying to attain during their decision-making process.

Put your business concerns on hold if they need first to vent about the past. Hence you can "match" their position (ie, feelings, perceptions, etc) and "move" forward together to achieve a satisfactory result.

2. Ask the adult child to list pros and cons of being in a family business
Instead of going into lecture mode of what they "should do" if they were "doing it right", enquire if the offspring can see the value trade-offs (ie, being on time for work is the trade off for enjoying the dividends) inherent in the family business. See if they have the capacity to align with reality first and foremost.

If there is a lot of wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations, concentrate on the "big picture" (ie, making a profit, leading a team sustainably) that are essential accountable truths of what it means to be in business.

3. Build accountability
It is never too late to do this, no matter what type of home your offspring come from. However, the laws of physics still apply – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If accountability is a "new thing" and something that the adult child doesn't understand, the owner has to expect resistance.

A cost/benefit ratio on the long-term value of this lack of understanding is needed, and owners need to be aware that things may get worse in the short term. However, this is just the natural consequence of suddenly changing a behaviour that has been reinforced over a long period of time.

4. Check your own motivation
Try to give an honest appraisal of whether what you are asking of the adult child is truly strategic and for the greater good of the business, as opposed to a subconscious payback for past frustrations that this child has caused you outside the business. Though you may be justified in your feelings, you need to learn how to forgive and forget to be truly objective.

5. Align with reality
Keep the family "in check with reality" by building a fear-free business culture that allows non-family members to give feedback on family members in a non-threatening way. Reinforce this with a paradoxical reward for the person that gives the toughest feedback.

6. Be consistent
According to a Harvard Business Review article, a CEO runs a business like a family. If this is true, imagine how much more confusing it must be for actual family members when values-based business decisions are not aligned with what they see at home. This can further reinforce the child-like side of an adult to withdraw and self-protect.

7. Watch the non-verbals
Many children have lived through years of sighs, eye rolls, and fake "that's fine" type of language. In a recent survey of family members in one of the organisations I worked in, when children were asked what the number one thing they wanted was, it was not money, power, promotion or even to work less and retain the benefits. It was "for parents to be real and to be able to say truly what is on your mind".

8. Ask for a 360 performance evaluation
Nothing beats teaching by example. Get an expert to conduct a 360 evaluation on you and ensure that the evaluators are family members, and vice versa. What patterns do you see? Where are your boundary issues and how can you be indirectly passing those issues on to your adult child?

9. Understand and utilise paradox
To gain, you have to let go. Sometimes to get what you want in your business, you may have to let go and do something that looks non-business savvy. This is hard to do, such as when your child fell off a bike and you wanted to save them from falling. And it is the same in business – some things don't change that much.

10. Seek professional help
Sometimes we don't see boundary issues until it is too late. And when we take it on ourselves, we make the problem worse. Einstein said: "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them." If you are hitting your head against a wall, and defining "change" as just adjusting the side of your head that you are banging, you are on the same level of solving the problem.

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