Balance, Grace and Crashing
by Ira Bryck, director, UMass Amherst Family Business Center
Just shy of my fifth birthday I was pedaling along, struggling to relax into that certain combination of caution and grace, hoping for balance on my two wheeler. It was an early foray into the world of self-propulsion, but at least my father was running along, holding the back of the seat. To reassure myself, I asked my father if he was still supporting me. I called out to him approximately every eight seconds. He continued to announce his presence, but something seemed odd. His voice was fading, more and more of a shout, but as if from far behind. I turned, to find him some 50 yards back. For another few feet, I was more free than ever in my life. Until I crashed into a '58 Caddy (parked) I was exhilarated by the thrill of my first solo flight.
Flash forward to a conversation with a close friend, after I'd spent fifteen adult years in my family's fourth generation retail store alongside my parents. "I don't know if I could ever run the business without my parents at the helm. I know that I have a lot of the necessary knowledge and skills, but do I have what it takes to really take charge?"
My friend responded with bemused assurance: "Don't you realize that you've been running this company for years? I'd bet your parents know it too!" Deja Vu all over again! My father's voice, of a boss turned mentor turned colleague, had indeed been getting fainter and fainter as I'd entered the business, slowly learned the ropes, and gained credibility. I was considered by all (except myself) to be competently pedaling, steering and propelling; though, as I imagined, the direction and momentum of the business had nothing to do with me. It was a revelation that empowered me, and enabled my parents to let go.
Ask any group of "next generation" members what is their chief concern in the business, and they will describe some variation of the above. It might not be as fortunate: my childhood neighbor learned to ride as follows: "Son, sit down and take heed. Biking is a risky task. You can be seriously hurt if you: speed, steer, mount, dismount, ride off a curb, travel in packs, go too far, or lose focus. Good luck." As my group of friends improved at their riding, I always pitied my risk averse friend, running alongside of us till exhausted, afraid to bike, petrified by his father's method of training. I would hate to be the business protege of that parent.
It's helpful to understand the culture and history of your family if you want to see what life will be like in your family business. Like many marriages, a family entering into business together forms an all-consuming relationship without much consideration of many predictable challenges. Many learn the hard way that it is not a good match (and not all families are equipped to work together), and it leaves the business and the family scarred and depleted.
It's a worthwhile investment of time and thinking to investigate the likely outcomes of co-preneurship. I would highly recommend a little brainstorming and planning on the issues of entering the family business. Family business versions of marriage vows, pre-nups, vision and mission statements would not be unreasonable tools to work with before you enter into this serious state of affairs. You might even enter into your own discussion about how you were taught to ride a bike (or to have an argument, or cook a meal...), and whether you want to be taught to run a business in the same fashion.
Teaching my own son to bike involved a lot of riding behind him on the local bike path, chanting "Stay to the right...stay to the right." One unfortunate but fortuitous collision with an oncoming rollerblader (that sent both of them rolling down into the creek) taught him a lesson in a way I never could. He is a kid who likes to think things through, but, like most of us, learns best from experience. His steering improved immensely that day.