Family Business Decision Making

So Maybe it IS the Highway

Highway traffic in sunset, travel concept background

“It’s MY way, or the Highway”

That expression is familiar to most people, and if you have ever been around an old-fashioned founder of a family business, it may hit especially close to home.

It’s interesting to note that as recently as a few decades ago, the default reaction to someone making this exclamation has probably changed.

What I mean by that is that in the middle of the last century, a family business leader who demanded that everything be done their way would more often than not succeed in getting everyone to do as they pleased.

In the early decades of this century, however, I would venture to guess that more often than not, they will have difficulty in getting everyone to buy into the “MY way”. So much so that fewer people will even dare utter that phrase.

So what has changed? Well there are a whole bunch of societal changes that have been occurring over the past few decades and it is important to be aware of how they are affecting business families.


Two Kinds of Life Expectancy

People are living longer, and staying productive and healthy for many more years than in the past, and the typical business founder has some difficulty letting go. Decades ago, their offspring could join the family business with the expectation that they would get to a point where they would inherit the business while still young enough to get to do things their own way. Not so much today.

The other kind of life expectancy is a term that I coined here myself, just for this blog. When invited to join the family business, more and more Next Generation members are thinking hard about what they expect out of their life.


Education = Options

Many families who have successful businesses will encourage their children to get a great education, but while they are getting educated, they are also getting exposed to the world of opportunities that such an education affords them.

What often happens is that a number of great options become hard to resist. If the choice is to return to the family fold and fall in line with a parent’s, “My Way”, or to go out and forge your own path, well, at least one of those paths is usually more tempting.

It can be understandably disappointing for parents to discover that a business that they built “for the family” does not seem to have any interested “takers”.

Families with means encourage independence in their offspring, and then lament the fact that they are no longer able to interest their children in being involved and taking over.


No Magic Bullet

At the risk of disappointing readers expecting me to provide a magic bullet solution, “sorry”. But I will offer some words of advice just the same.

It is true that there are more and more good “highways” out there, and if your “former chidren” have found a career for which they have a passion, then that’s probably better than having them come work for you and hate Mondays.

Also, if you have built a sustainable company and do not have any heirs who want to work there, all is not lost. Have you thought about having the family continue to own the business, even after you retire, having it run by professional, non-related management?

If you want to be involved with your children and they have an entrepreneurial spirit that they inherited from their parents but they are not exactly enthralled by your business, have you thought about helping them get started in a business venture in a field that they are passionalte about?

These last two ideas, long term family ownership of the business and starting a new business with and for your kids, are just a couple of ways to avoid the old question of My Way OR the highway.


The Family > The Business

If you have an open mind, and some creativity, you can look for ways to do things “Our Way”, and try a few different highways.

When thinking about the next generation, I always encourage people to be a great parent first, and think about the business second. I hope you see the wisdom of that approach.