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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

The Group Throne

by Ira Bryck

Two brothers listened intently to the compelling words of their dear, departing father. "You both worked very hard in our family business. You did your jobs well and you each struggled to show me how you could lead this company one day. Sorry, but I just couldn't pick one of you above the other. Finally, I've made my decision. I want you to both be presidents...Co- Presidents. But listen up: if and when you can't agree, when you're in absolute deadlock, call my brother Michael in California. I know you never liked him, but he's a smart guy. He'll listen to both sides, and then decide.

No surprise that these two leaders strove to cooperate ceaselessly, never wanting to gamble on the uncertain pronouncements of Uncle Mike.

It is quite a challenge to run any business. What makes a family business even more intense is that your business partners have notions about you (and you about them) formed in the Wonder Years, that just won't quit. They can't see how you've grown...and maybe you haven't...because of the box they've placed you in.

If there was ever a time to get out of those boxes, it's now. Consider that by the year 2005 virtually all closely held and family owned businesses will lose their primary owner to death or retirement. Too many family businesses are still not talking about who will lead in the next generation.

Those who are talking are often talking about shared leadership. An estimated 2/3 of all family companies now run by a individual owner/manager are considering collective governance. Siblings and cousins don't want to tread on thin ice of family communication any more than their parents did. Who wants to pursue a conversation about who is more qualified? And many likely successors don't relate to the model of the undisputed autocracy of their parents generation. Feeling that their business' culture could be more egalitarian, they can shift a paradigm and avoid a major awkwardness with one deft manuever.

However, the likelihood is that many successors are as unprepared to be the Two Headed President as they are to be Top Cat. Many had no role model, either in their company or in society. They might be basing their concept more on what not to do than what to do. Don't be controlling... arbitrary... secretive...close-minded.

It is rare to find that person (or combination of people) able to foster positive alternatives to stereotypical "big boss" qualities. It takes a spirit of cooperation, openness, thoughtfulness, and mutual respect for shared leadership to benefit from the cross-fertilization of talents, visions, and personalities.

It is always good to anticipate and expect that difficult decisions will arise, which even huge stores of good won't resolve. Here's where the decision-making process benefits from some pre-emptive playfulness.

Two cousins, serving as co-presidents, would occasionally run aground on conflicting business decisions. An inspired friend presented them one day with a magic wand. It held only one power: if and when the two could not resolve their differences on any matter, the bearer of the wand got to make the call- but then had to pass the stick to the other, for next time. Both were motivated to not waste that special ability on any resolveable dispute. They always strove to compromise and negotiate with great fairness and perspective.

Many business families prefer to have one leader presiding over the company. They believe shared rule is a disaster waiting to happen. In most cases the prerequisites for successful co-leadership are not available: a generous portion of trust in your partner's competence and character; appreciating the success of your partnership at least as much as your own personal accomplishments; a realistic understanding of your partner's leadership skills; as well as a thorough grasp of where your weaknesses lie. Even if they see eye to eye, it is written "if two leaders agree on everything, then one of them is unnecessary."

Even among co-leaders, one person is often appointed or understood to be the Conductor, Commanding Authority, Primary Visionary, or Most Capable Facilitator in the group. Though if no one person is titled President, there still needs to be clearly defined lines of authority and a group process of administration and decision making.

Family businesses that experience and capitalize on increased levels of trust, understanding, loyalty, and communication have a great competitive advantage. Your customers, employees, and suppliers will all benefit and appreciate your "familyness." Consider yourself lucky if, in your family business, you feel it is important to consider shared leadership. It demonstrates admirable values. But it takes realism and self-knowledge. It is crucial that you take a good look - and have a good talk- about whether a single leader or co-Presidents would best serve your family business.

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