Family Business Leadership Succession


Son Looking Off Into the Distance

Well over 10 years ago when beginning work with a new family-owned business client, the matter of leadership succession emerged as a primary topic. The small business owner had built a highly successful boat dealership with growing revenues and high levels of customer satisfaction. The success had not come easy. The owner had persisted through early years of hands-on customer engagement, directing the activities of nearly every employee, juggling payables and receivables, preparing for anticipated future business by expanding showroom and shop space, and so on. In effect, he fit the description of what most people would describe as an entrepreneur. 

Father to Son Leadership Succession

At 64 years old, the business owner wanted to hand off the business to his son, and had been in the process of attempting to do so for a few years. To his disappointment, his attempts were not working well. Although the son had worked in the business for over 10 years and clearly understood how the business worked, no one within the organization ever approached him seeking his input, guidance or direction on any matters of true importance. He was considered to be knowledgeable, smart, well liked and nearly always willing to provide support when asked to assist, but that was it. The father remained determined to make his son the leader of the business. Surely, having overcome extensive obstacles throughout the years to build the business, this current obstacle could be conquered, too. He told his son to get more involved, to be more demanding, and to make the people in the business respond to him. To the son’s credit, he gave it a hearty effort. He only succeeded in fostering confusion and anger.
So what was happening? Why couldn’t the son, a college educated, friendly, knowledgeable individual successfully transition to leader of the business? He had the model of leadership right in front of him; his father. There was one missing ingredient. Behaviorally, the son was very different than his father. The father was aggressive and demanding, the son cautious and agreeable. The father was calculating and analytical, the son personable and empathetic. The father was proactive and impatient, the son responsive and deliberate. The only shared behavioral trait was attention to detail and need for structure. For those who understand how to read a PI survey result, the father was a highest A, low B, lowest C, high D. The son was low A, high B, slightly-high C, highest D.

Leadership Development Dilemma

What happened next? Working with the father and son, we were quickly able to identify the large behavioral gap between the two. They both realized that the son would never behave and operate in a manner anywhere near the way his father did. Could they work on changing the organizational culture of the business or the way they did business? That would require changing the manner in which some of the key employees handled their jobs, and they were performing quite well doing things in the manner (behaviorally) they did. Why create stress where there currently was very little? So, if the son couldn’t change, and the employees couldn’t change, and if the father was going to retire, what should they do?

A Good Job Fit For All

There is a happy end to this dilemma. It turned out that there was a rising star running a second store location. He had a behavioral style quite similar to the father and many years in the business. He became the General Manager of the entire business while the son became the President. As President, instead of directing the operations as his father had done, the son became the public face of the business, which allowed people to meet and know all about the business as a contributing member of the community. The son also remained quite active in the operations providing his views and insights on the business during his weekly meetings with the General Manager. The father retired and is cruising the Caribbean, competing in fishing tournaments, and enjoying many visits from (and spoiling) his grandchildren. Life is good!

Further Reading on Family Business Leadership Succession

A final note. When preparing for this blog, I searched on line for “family business succession”. As you would imagine, there are countless articles, white papers, studies and consulting firms addressing the topic. Not many addressed the importance of effective leadership as part of family business succession planning. I suggest you read this research from Baylor University for further insight on the topic.