When Family Business Leaders Die
Fact: Every person who ever founded or led a family business has either already died, or will die someday.
There’s a certain segment of the population who believe that they’ll be the first exception to this rule.
Successful entrepreneurs seem to make up a disproportionate percentage of this segment.
No Two Are Alike
Of course, every family is different, every business is different, every founder is different and every leader is different.
But I try to make this blog relevant to every family, every business, every founder, and every leader.
This isn’t necessarily an easy task, but let’s give it a shot.
Let’s start by looking at a couple of types of family business leader deaths.
Early Surprise Deaths
Every now and then, due to an accident or illness, the leader of a business will die at a relatively early age.
These cases are tragic, and everyone can understand that the family and the business will face some tough sledding in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
The story of Karl-Erivan Haub of Germany is a recent case in point.
That story from CampdenFB features some interesting takes from various family business experts, including yours truly.
“Long Life, Well-Lived” Deaths
At the other end of the spectrum are cases where a family business founder passes away after a long and satisfying life.
The business has by then been left in great hands, either within the family or not.
The family is in good shape as well, thanks to some great parenting, thoughtful transition and legacy planning, and a little bit of luck (or maybe a LOT of luck) along the way.
After the death, life goes on for the family, as well as for the business. But the family can grieve the person without worrying about the fate of the business.
Most Are In Between
In reality, most situations fall somewhere in between these extremes.
Besides the luck, what can you do to move along the spectrum towards the “life well-lived” end?
First off, I think that we need to acknowledge how much of a role luck actually plays in everything.
Too many people spend too much time and effort trying to control too many things that are actually way beyond their control.
Alas, that’s likely another subject for another blog. Or maybe I just hit the nail on the head.
Is It All About Control?
I mentioned that people often “try to control” things that are “beyond our control”.
I accidentally repeated the word “control” within the same sentence, which a good editor surely would’ve changed.
But this isn’t a book, it’s just my blog, where I act as my own lowly editor, so I’ll just use this as a sign that it’s important.
So, What CAN You Really Control?
Since few of us can really control when we are ultimately going to die, we should probably focus on the things over which we actually exercise some true influence.
Well, like preparing for the fact that someday, sooner, or, hopefully, much later, we’ll no longer be around.
Our luck, so to speak, will run out.
We will all eventually become nothing more than fertilizer for the flowers that someone has (hopefully) planted above our grave.
The Three Key Transitions
Let’s go back to the trusted Three Circle Model.
Every family business leader should focus on the three main areas where they play or played a role: the Family, the Business, and the Ownership.
They do overlap, but are each very different.
– What areas of your family leadership will someone else need to assume after you are gone?
– What areas of your business leadership will need to be assumed by others?
– And let’s not forget the ownership.
This can be the stickiest area, and should probably be worked on much earlier than most people think.
Unresolved ownership issues cause the biggest problems after a death.
The Ideal Scenario
A leader who can exit their business and ownership roles long before they die will have achieved the ultimate triumph.
Your death should mark your exit from the family only.
You should have exited the business and ownership in advance, otherwise the family’s grief will be more complex than it needs to be.
See also: Striving for a Succession Non-Event