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All In The Family

By Chuck Violand

September 24, 2018

My father was reasonably handy around the house. Guys of his generation had to be. There was no Google or YouTube to go to for videos on how to repair things. You had to figure stuff out on your own, and people took great pride in doing so.

I remember an event from when I was in grade school. It was Christmastime, and I had just come home from a friend’s house where his father had assembled a train set around their Christmas tree. I was so impressed with what he had done that I started going on and on to my mom about how great my friend’s dad was. My father was home at the time, probably catching a nap between the two jobs he worked to support our family, and my mom was concerned that he might have been within earshot. When I finished blithering, she reminded me about all the great qualities of my dad, and that while my friend’s father might also be great in some areas, I didn’t want to ignore the qualities of my own. This lesson has stayed with me over the years, and it’s one I’ve also applied to business.

Ninety percent of all businesses in North America are considered “family businesses,” so it’s only natural that many have multiple generations of the same family working in them. At VMA, we’re frequently asked to help our clients navigate the transition of ownership within a family business—usually parents transferring ownership to their children. These are the same children whose diapers they changed, whose ball teams they coached, and whose recitals they attended. And these are the same parents whose younger legs their kids clung to when they were frightened or feeling insecure. Too often, past events like these, and the relationships and emotions they forged, are forgotten when it comes to business.

In a transition, it’s typically only one of the family members who requests outside help. And it’s only natural for the expert to be viewed as the latest “friend’s parent” who is being championed by that party. When either generation asks for help, even if it’s just to get along better when they’re at work, we always keep in mind the role we’re playing and the responsibility we have to all parties involved. As experts, we might have specific skills in certain areas, but the family members do as well. And the expert’s role with the company is transient, while the family members have a long history that preceded their involvement and, hopefully, will continue after it ends.

Successful transitions occur when all generations involved are bought into the process; when everyone is trusting and feeling secure; when they feel their voice is being heard and their interests are being taken seriously. An expert’s job is to create such an environment while they facilitate the transition.

Unfortunately, raised voices and hurt feelings are all too often part of learning to work better together or part of the ownership transference process. But it doesn’t have to end that way. If we enter the process focused on respect, inclusion, and mutual gain we’re much more likely to produce a successful result.

Wealth transfers hands from person to person, or generation to generation. The relationships that are left behind are what matter most. They transcend time.