Search
University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

If You Have a Lot to Learn, You Have a Lot to Teach

By Ira Bryck

Of the many formidable challenges facing any business (but more so the family company) a biggie is how to make significant decisions. A sole proprietor can make any seat of the pants proclamation he or she wishes, risking only profits, customer loyalty, obsolescence, and public ridicule; but relatives cannot bang out strategic maneuvers easily, besieged by imbalances of power, impoliteness of certain topics like death and incompetence, conflicting views about money and risk, not to mention that you may not have the stomach for being the very last wagon wheel manufacturer, though your father is overjoyed you've outlasted the competition.

And so you may be sitting around the conference or dinner table, blathering the usual "Mother, please; I'd rather do it myself" or "That's all I can take, and I can't take no more" or "Our brightest days are behind us."

In my case, cast as fourth generation president of my family's retail clothing store, the oldest childrenswear store in the nation, I saw no way out but to close. The neighborhood had declined, category killers were not going away, I wanted out of the nest. I tried to think outside the box, but being in a box, the thoughts increased the claustrophobia.

When I closed that business, I was not prepared for the flood of creative thoughts about what I coulda, shoulda done. Maybe some of them would have actually stemmed the bleeding, assuaged the ennui. No matter, there were more good reasons to go than stay, and I'm now so much more fulfilled. But the point is, I needed to get out of town needed some time and space, though not quite 40 days in the desert, to think better.

Think better, not more, is the point. I once heard that people think 85,000 thoughts per day (I never counted, so relying on that research). And that the vast majority of those daily thoughts are similar or identical to yesterday's thoughts. Of course, I wouldn't want to re-figure out each day how to make a left turn. But at best, yesterday's thought solved yesterday's problem. (It may have only put off yesterday's problem, in which case the problem and the half vast thought are both making an encore.) Today's problem, as Einstein noted, needs new thinking.

And though solutions are more plentiful than we think, they're often hard to locate. So consider those that have made themselves very available, like the UMass Amherst Family Business Center. If I told you we have gathered the world's greatest thinkers, all focused on your issues, it would not be the whole truth. If I claimed that this organization, comprised of rocket scientists, brain surgeons, and healers of the common cold, will help you grow your retail store or machine shop, you'd tell me there is only so much that geniuses know about shopping or welding, and I'd agree.

What we have here is a population of the generally curious, hungry, and adaptable. They are not huddled masses. They have come out of the closet, stating plainly that there is information they need to acquire. Add to that, our presenters: a mix of teachers, social scientists, technicians, philosophers, workaholics, all sorts of experts, those who have fallen and got back up, those who (to paraphrase Ashleigh Brilliant) are not perfect, but parts of them are excellent.

Our learning community is made of people who are too needy to be a passive audience of students. If our presenter says something unclear, provocative, or not on the target of the listener, it will be examined and questioned. On our evaluations, where we ask for examples of what "gems" were mined from any given presentation, there have been many examples of treasures coming from audience members, responding to the speaker. I think that's a good thing.

Plus, our several executive roundtable groups give our members a rare chance to be fully open, in giving and receiving. When you count all the collective wisdom and experience of 12 honest people conferring confidentially, it is MUCH more than the sum of the parts that is given not only to the individual who's challenges are being discussed, but to each person who is contributing their best stuff. All those people are, again, not brain surgeons, but they know how to get inside the heads of one another, stimulating the grey matter of the guy next door.

This is a resource like no other for family business owners of Western Massachusetts and beyond. We are now coming upon our tenth anniversary, and still in our fiercest growth stages. That is a reflection of the brave members of our nearly 70 companies who know that there is more safety out of the box than in.

Back to Top