“Clunky Ownership Syndrome” in Family Business
Ownership usually doesn’t get much attention in the area of family business, and there are many reasons for that, and we’ll get to some.
Maybe I’m emphasizing it too much. I did a quick search of my website (www.ShiftYourFamilyBusiness.com) and found that I’ve already written 3 blogs with “ownership” in the title.
Everything is relative, though, and even with this fourth blog on the subject, that’s less than one blog a year about this “forgotten” circle. (see: Ownership: the Forgotten Circle of Family Business)
Status Quo That Lasts
The people who own a business have certain privileges that come with ownership, but with those, there are also responsibilities.
Most people who work for a family business know who the owners are, and they’re usually given certain deference.
The owners, in turn, try not to act like superior overlords, and this dance can continue for decades, as long as nothing changes.
Fast Moving World
While ownership remains fixed over time, the two other “circles”, family and business, are constantly in flux.
The business evolves, new products are launched, new locations opened, expansions bring in new employees, and new markets are developed.
Financial results are compiled monthly and quarterly.
The family also changes, as members find partners and have children, people get educated and find their passions, some join the business, and everyone grows older every year.
Oh, and some die.
Things are constantly evolving, and changes are part of life, and these days things seem to move more quickly than ever.
Yet ownership usually stays fixed, and rarely even gets a second thought.
Clunky by Definition
I chose the word “clunky” to describe the situation because it felt like the right word, and I’ve used it to explain this to people in the past.
Searching shutterstock.com to find an appropriate image for this post, I almost had second thoughts, as the photo choices for “clunky” were mostly 1980’s cellphones.
(I went “outside the box” a bit with my choice of hippos; not sure it worked (?)).
Then I Googled “clunky definition” and I was immediately sold on the fact that clunky was the right word.
Here’s what came back:
clunky: awkwardly solid, heavy, and outdated.
I’m not suggesting that ownership should necessarily change more frequently than it does; that would be stretching it.
What I am saying is that the definition above includes a couple of words that many family businesses should be thinking about much more than they typically do.
There are only four key words in that definition, so you can probably locate the two that are ringing alarms bells in my head.
“Awkwardly solid” almost sounds like a backhanded compliment. Solid is usually positive, but when it’s awkwardly so, well, maybe not so much.
Family business relationships are often already awkward, simply because family and business overlaps cause complex situations.
Now throw in ownership overlaps, compounded by the fact that things are stuck in the past, and things get even clumsier.
“Outdated” is probably the simplest word to describe the issues that I’ve seen regarding the ownership of family businesses.
It’s not hard to understand why things change so infrequently, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should just be cool with it.
Rising generation family members crave some clarity about their futures, but they often continue to put up with vague replies when they broach the subject.
“Don’t worry, some day this will all be yours”
When Exactly is “Some Day”?
Once again I feel the need to explain my views on this, lest readers get the impression that I think ownership changes absolutely need to happen more regularly and quickly.
I’m advocating for some thoughtful discussion and planning, and hopefully some transparency.
As the business evolves and family members age, transition plans are contemplated to make sure that people will be prepared to assume their future business management roles.
Don’t forget that there needs to be an ownership transition too.
Do you really think it makes sense to think about those things as completely separate discussions? I don’t.
And if you ask those being groomed for future management roles, I bet they’d agree too.
Look 15 years into the future. People will be that much older, and the business will have grown.
If nothing changes, your current ownership structure will be pretty clunky.
Start planning those changes now too.