Ask the Question - Have the Discussion

Larry Grypp

Larry Grypp, President of the Goering Center
June 2016

Sometimes the truth hurts. But what can hurt even more is the fear that it might.

This is especially true when a family business founder or owner begins contemplating inviting their child to join the family enterprise – or perhaps be the leadership successor.

For all the content and guidance and even anecdotal case studies we can offer to family businesses at the Goering Center about the value of having clarity around next-generation succession, we have come to appreciate that for many families these conversations are hard – or imagined to be hard – to the point where they are avoided.

Why is that? In our experience, it’s because there seems to be so much at stake for both parties – and much of that is unsaid or imagined. If my parent asks if I want to be in the family business, does that mean they expect that of me?  What if I say “yes,” but I realize they have serious reservations about it? If as the next generation I ask them, am I putting them in a bad spot or seeming pushy?  Even if the answer is “yes,” is that the final answer or are there other conditions (and difficult choices and learnings) that might come with that? You can see the swirl of sentiments and hidden anxieties that this question can stir up on both generations.

In some cases, it may not be avoidance so much as either party just takes it for granted the other person “just knows.”

The consequence of that avoidance is enormous. Much more than a hard truth, not having the conversation can endanger legacy, squander family wealth and be a wordless wedge in family harmony. We recommend that a family business have a charter, and that charter ought to lay out the considerations or standards for family employment and promotions – but the first step in that process is clarity around intent.

Questions lead to clarity and clarity leads to commitment – in that order. Pushing through whatever awkwardness, casualness or fear stands in our way, having the dialogue early can clear the path for all family members to commit to the next steps.