Family Business
Advisor & Coach

Righting History

Family Businesses (FBs) are often urged to shed family baggage and look to the future, not dwell in the past. This is reasonably sound advice and I have frequently asked folks to put aside previous ways of thinking and doing and focus on forging a new dispensation. This approach is usually effective in successions where the next generation must put its stamp on the business and not just the lick the envelope created by the senior generation. It works well when siblings or cousins come from families which have a history of functioning for the most part as a healthy group. In those families, we can produce policies that cater for the expansion of the family and business—family member employment, compensation, dividend, in-law involvement, buy-sell agreements and the like. This is not to suggest that the writing and implementation of such policies is clear sailing for those FBs. There may be some unfavourable historical precedence around many of the topics but these families are able to transcend the past and create a blueprint for a productive way forward.

Ever so often though, I come up against situations where the family history seems to mitigate against shareholders arriving at any satisfactory resolution. The family past is so toxic that I sometimes despair of finding an antidote.   Indeed, there are times when the pill is too bitter to swallow and FBs simply disband, taking down family relationships with them.  In some of those cases I simply look backwards at the antics of a previous generation and recognize a pattern.   When senior generation members have come out of contentious FB situations, there is the hope that they will avoid the same with their children.  Some do, and others seem doomed to repeat history.  I have seen a business succumb to an untimely sale because the siblings who managed the firm just could not find a way to work together –much like their owning mother and her siblings before them in a different business at another time. They may avoid the cost of court battles and the embarrassment of newspaper headlines and even make a few dollars on the deal but value is not fully realized. Not only have they denied their children the benefit of a business legacy but the rancour runs so deep that first cousins barely know each other or feel the warmth of an aunt’s love. I acknowledge though, that there are times when a well-planned exit strategy is the only viable option.

There is however in some cases another choice. In recent times, I have been working with families where the challenge is to right the present, tainted by a seemingly overpowering past.  How does a set of siblings learn how to operate as a unit when the family history is one of open and continuous marital discord between an alcoholic mother and a workaholic father?   There was never any real semblance of family life.  How to create collaboration among siblings who know only intense competition among themselves for what they see as limited resources?    In these cases, the children seem destined to squabble over money or a pat on the back from Mom or Dad and there is never enough of either to go round. How do I build a team from the rubble of so much dysfunction and pain? Even if the more enlightened members sometimes find their way or are pushed towards a therapist’s couch, the wounds run so deep that it is almost ludicrous to talk about succession.

Yet, there is a way, provided the next generation faces their history and seeks to reduce its impact on the future.  Once there is acknowledgment of the past and a willingness to move through the pain and recognise the brilliant possibilities that lie before them, then we stand a chance. There is no shortcut here though. They must open the cupboard and shake hands with the skeletons.  I may dangle the keys in front of them but they need to reach forward and grasp them. I do point out to them though, the gleaming future that awaits—a well-run and profitable business administered by competent and diverse family members and a chance to create a semblance of a family unit, if only within their generation and those to come. It is never too late.   We may have to figuratively, if not literally, leave behind, the fathers and mothers who when confronted with the issues, choose not to right history but to rewrite it. The alcoholic mother continues to deny her addiction and recounts her great parental deeds, which only she is able to identify.  The workaholic father professes a deep love for children he barely knows but hasn’t the faintest clue how to remedy that.  I may suggest a myriad of concrete and specific ways to proceed and the change requires courage and commitment of the kind that the father exercised in building the business.

There is hope though, if the senior generation cedes some control over the business to their offspring in a real and meaningful way.  The next generation must be set free in more ways than one to forge a new beginning as it were.  They may not be able to totally ignore their history but they can resolve to write themselves a future which their children and grandchildren will not ever feel the need to right.