What I Really Meant To Do Was…

When there is a business to think about, it matters who fulfills what roles.  This can mean the difference between significant growth at best and unrecoverable failure at worst. With a family business, the stakes are high; the dynamics are very different than a non-family business.

One family I was referred to but did not work with owned a large and successful printing company. The father was not yet retired. In his late seventies, he was grooming his two sons to take over the business.  The scene was classic. Dad came to work in his khakis and button down shirt with shoes he didn’t think much about, he’d had them for years.  His eldest son came in every day dressed in a tailored suit and soft, leather Italian loafers, changing them once they had a few scoff marks on them.  The younger son came to work in his jeans and gym shoes. The contrast between all three spoke to the tension echoing throughout the main facility.

The younger son knew he was number two in the business which meant he was number two to Dad at home. This son also knew the responsibility for success of the business lay with his elder brother. Dividends would be paid out regardless of his performance. The family felt the tension that resulted in this predicament yet no one talked about it directly.  Of course there were subtle snaps and innuendos made but it didn’t matter. The dynamics were left untouched.

Years later, after the father passed, their unwillingness to come to the table and work out the right plan for the family took its toll. Although the widowed mother continued receiving dividends from the business, the tensions between the two sons was hurting the business. The position each knew they had with the other as business partners created an unhealthy environment for themselves, the employees and the delivery of product. Even when the older son offered to buy the younger brother out, a deal could not be reached.

The mother was asked to take sides. She couldn’t find a way to do this in a way that would not hurt at least one of her sons.  While this was being played out competitors began to chip away at the stronghold this company had on printing services in their market.

Eventually the younger brother sold his shares of the business for a fraction of its earlier worth. Because of the time it took for the brothers to come forge their agreement, their mother had become more distant to them as she couldn’t find a way to help them be the brothers they had once been.  After the business was sold, the eldest son put away his tailored suits and fancy soft leather shoes. When I reentered that business he was wearing khaki pants, a button down shirt, and shoes he had worn for a few years. He had become what he had never envisioned, an entrepreneur, rebuilding a business, rather than his visions of a CEO, having the business support his lifestyle; having an already strong business brand recognized and respected by the community. This was very tough for himself, his wife and kids.

The original family’s legacy was broken. The business was a shadow of its original self. The elder son, intent on rebuilding the business did not want what happened to his brother and parents happen with his wife and kids. He brought me in to help them connect the family with the business in a way that worked.  

I recommend seeing a movie called: The Inheritance.  It is Danish with English subtitles. It is a thoughtful film that paints a portrait of an eldest son who, after his father’s sudden death has to make an excruciating decision between his lifestyle and his domineering mother’s wish to run the collapsing business she has suddenly inherited.  It illustrates a common theme, the mess, when lack of planning meets abrupt, and unprepared for change.  

It does matter who sits where.  It will make a difference in ways you may not have even considered or may ever know.  There is a cost to putting a person who is unprepared or unmotivated into a seat of power and impact.

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