In the course of the transition of a business, owners and successor participate in a three-phase dance:
Phase 1: Original owner leads and teaches the successor the steps.
Phase 2: Owner and successor are leading at the same time – a bit awkward.
Phase 3: Successor leads and the original owner follows.
Even in the best of circumstances, owners and successors step on each other’s toes. And when the owner and successor are also parent and child, the dance can look like a bull blundering through the proverbial china shop. Littering the floor are hurt feelings and fractured relationships instead of shattered porcelain.
The long history between parent and child provides a fertile breeding ground for miscommunication, mistaken assumptions and unrealistic expectations. It also makes the parent’s role as teacher during Phase 1, collaborator during Phase 2 and wise mentor during Phase 3 especially . . . delicate (difficult can be such a negative word).
With a few adjustments to behavior and attitude on the parts of both owner and successor, however, we can minimize the injuries. In this article we discuss the parent’s role and remedies in the business transition dance, and in the next article, the child’s perspective.
The Parent’s Role in the Dance
During Phase 1, parents teach a “subject” (i.e., how they do what they do) that they know so well they typically and unwittingly skip steps as they teach it. This is natural and normal and can be navigated with ease. It helps to break down the responsibilities into bite-size pieces and set milestones for the transfer of those responsibilities. During this phase, owners typically assume that their successors—especially when those successors are their children who have heard about the business at the dinner table since they were in highchairs—know more than they actually do. Putting timelines with expectations and commitments in writing not only demonstrates a parent’s willingness to transfer knowledge but it makes the anticipated path explicit.
During the second phase of the transition dance, successors assume greater levels of responsibility and owners support them in doing so by letting go. Mistakes are inevitable when successors are wondering why owners won’t stop leading and owners are waiting for their successors to take some initiative.
Parents reap the success of their efforts (and patience) in Phase 3 when their children master the tasks necessary to lead a company. Parents who anticipate that their children will not dance in the same way that they did can concentrate on being graceful partners. They can experience the satisfaction that comes from teaching another person something they loved doing.
Miscommunication = Frustration
Communication = Confidence and Success
While miscommunication can occur during any phase of the business transition dance, parents and children typically stumble most during Phase 2. Even if parents lay a solid foundation for their children in Phase 1, Phase 2 requires patience on the part of the parents and active engagement on the part of the successor. Successors are simply not equipped to handle a business at the beginning of their journeys to become owners. Still, they are (or should be) eager to assume leadership.
Hints for Parents/Owners
How can you avoid the pitfalls of unmet expectations and subsequent disappointment to become an effective teacher and wise mentor?
1. Assume best of intent…replace accusation and judgement with clarifying questions. Ask questions when you don’t understand the behavior and decisions you see in your successor. We typically do not strive to do the wrong things and fail so be curious about where they may be struggling and how to be helpful.
2. Be honest and open. Seems obvious, but as parents, we can be tempted to sweep problems under the rug and coat the truth with wishful thinking and spoons full of sugar.
3. Expect mistakes. Recognize that successors cannot learn to solve problems when parents constantly protect them.
4. Slow down in order to accelerate. Asking successors to do too much too quickly can destroy your confidence in them and their confidence in themselves.
5. Bring playfulness to the dance floor. Humor, positivity and lightheartedness can help smooth even the most difficult parts of the dance.
Elizabeth Ledoux is a co-author of the award-winning It’s A Journey: The MUST-HAVE Roadmap to Successful Succession Planning, as well as Accelerate Your Entrepreneurial Flight and Understanding the Growth of the Entrepreneur. She frequently speaks to organizations and business owners about challenges and opportunities in private and family business transitions, business and individual growth, and the business succession journey.