Search
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Father Knows Best, But Not for You

By Ira Bryck, director, UMass Amherst Family Business Center

When business grows to where you can't go it alone, are you better off hiring clones, or people who complement your strengths, able to repair and build where you fall through the cracks?

Little has been said about the benefit of cloning for business. Henry Ford's descendant, Bill, doesn't need a founder's gumption (and surely benefits from the lack of racist rantings), but any company that could reproduce their founder's confidence, vision, and energy in each generation would never get stale. (But not every founder could handle the turnovers and explosions that arise for future generations.)

Sometimes the more things change, the more different they are. Many conflicts between generations can be simply explained as "generational"; and though perspectives change as we age (the 20-something rebel is shocked by their 50-something contentment), success often depends on being up on the current management fashion.

You may feel that "command and control" leadership is yesterday's flavor, and "team driven, consensus oriented" leadership is not a flavor at all- it's absolutely better. But twenty years hence, if teams are passe, there's no way you'll get the best from your people unless you can lead a workforce of consultants, or staff with implanted chips, or subcontract to your competition. Consider yourself fortunate if the current executive attire looks flattering on you.

My father was very command and control. It fit him, but I wasn't comfortable emulating it, and there wasn't room in our childrenswear shop for two bulls. He was hard sell, I sold soft. He'd proclaim "you'll straighten the pajamas", while I'd beseech: "Mind sprucing up the sleepwear?" Our partnership was an exercise in restraint, but also mutual respect. Sometimes we rubbed each other wrong, but sometimes some good rubbed off.

But what results when the leader has such a powerful style that the next generation can't discover themselves, can't even breathe? If the adult child tries to be their own person, their voice is drowned out, disregarded. Try to imitate, it will be as effective as a toddler wearing daddy's jacket. Even more pathetic (and astoundingly common) is outright competition, creating chaos and disrespect that would dismay Shakespeare & Son, plus your higher strung employees.

What to do? Should the heir keep a low cover until the strongman eventually heads south? Invariably, by that time, the parent has dug in so deep, there is a rut their kid cannot climb out of. Too late for a personality change, or the child's hiding place has become too comfortable, or the new regime runs out of gas and suffers a no confidence vote. And then, when the business fails, you hear "Shame… the apple fell too far from the tree," when, in fact, the apple rotted right on the branch.

There is truth to the common claim that "our business is all about people". A good thing, if there's good chemistry and good will. It implies that there are situations where there is bad chemistry, especially in family businesses, where bad partnerships can be a life sentence.

Covey's "begin with the end in mind" implies that if you can't get there from here, it makes no sense to begin. Some family relationships are just not fated to work well. With 22 million companies in the U.S., why work with your despicable family? Maybe despicable is too strong: why work where you won't all be at your best?

Separated at birth is not the goal. Speaking chemically, there would be no water if hydrogen and oxygen were exactly alike. But are you making water, or oil and water? Can you each take pride in the eventual passing of power and ownership, or does it thwart some higher goal, like immortality, or avoiding responsibility?

Can you respect differences between you, and learn lessons from someone who you're glad you're not? My father had a Yiddishism, "from a fool you can also learn." He's no fool, but my soft sell techniques benefited from watching him sell, Sell, SELL !! until we made payroll. If I could not learn from him, could not enjoy him, then I owed it to both of us to find other work.

There is a relatively short list of strategic advantages of working with family: increased trust, shared values, enhanced mind-reading. They enable a team to pass the torch, not pass the buck. They are sometimes lumped together into the catchphrase "family-ness." For a business family to work ON the business, not just IN the business, increasing this factor is a Make or Break proposition.

Ira Bryck is director of the UMass Amherst Family Business Center. His autobiographical family business play, "A Tough Nut to Crack", premiers this fall. Find out more at www.umass.edu/fambiz

Back to Top