I just returned from the Family Firm Global Conference that I attended in Brussels, Belgium. I was speaking there on Culture Change for Changing Times. I have a white paper coming together to tell you about the talk.
But there were several themes that emerged there that were quite interesting to me. I have never realized how many of my clients and attendees at Vistage and Tec workshops are members of family firms—Presidents and CEOs (Entrepreneurs, Founders or “king”) or Second Generation sons, daughters or their family firm spouses…even third or occasionally fourth generation cousins, grandsons and daughters. It is beginning to add an entirely new dimension to the work I do to help companies change.
Caught between you and your family
One of the most recurring themes (not unexpectedly) was all about how second and third generation young adults are caught between family and themselves. A conference speaker, Denis Jaffe, talked about growing up in a family business – a school – run in his home. He really never understood that people typically left home to go to work because both of his parents worked in their home that was also a school.
What he learned in his growing-up journey was that he really had to go out and find himself outside of the family business and make a life and a career that was his. Ironically, as his business career has evolved, he now finds himself working with his wife out of their home – so once again he has to face the challenges of a family firm and the complex relationships of wife and business partner being the same person. What I heard as he spoke was the problem a family business has: knowing “what you know you know” but not “what you don’t know you don’t know.”
Children in a family firm must blaze their own trail
Denis Jaffe’s advice was to encourage parents and children to push the children past that feeling of being “victims” at the mercy of their family and the firm. Instead, do some “care-frontation”: help young people develop their identities early, teach them how to have a career path that may or may not include the family firm, and develop skills to engage and confront parents in ways that will help them thrive in the business or not.
The hardest part is the challenge of being a grown-up child whose parents knew you when you were a toddler and see you following their script. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of still trying to please them instead of doing a job and being honest about the role you are playing in the business.
As Denis spoke he focused on how “you must develop your credibility. How can you be the person who can lead the family? Establish yourself outside. You come back in as a steward and helper for the family. Parents have to let go and let their children go out.”
Stuck living out someone else’s dream
For me, reflecting on clients with two or three generations running the businesses, I remember the conflict some clients shared with me about what they “really” had wanted to do with their lives—be a sculptor, play in a rock band, be a doctor, work for a Fortune 500 company. But there they were in the family firm doing marketing, sales, or running operations in companies that looked nothing like their dreams.
I really liked Denis’ perspective. You can hear more from Denis on his website.
Some of the other speakers actually moved in and out of their family firms. Several women told stories that were really interesting and made me wonder about the different realities for boys and girls as they grow up in family firms. And at the end of the session I was really glad, once again, that I never went into the family business and never looked back.