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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

How Can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away? *

by Ira Bryck

Research and anecdotes indicate the senior generation of a family business typically has 90% of their assets and 150% of their self-esteem tied up in the company. And though there is great to-do about how to cash out, there is less plotting about how to diversify one’s fulfillment, allowing successors to progress without undue cramping of their style.

Despite golf, travel, and needlepoint, a senior’s momentum and character can lead to endless second-guessing and harumphing. Even if your kids have the social grace to thank you for your well-intentioned advice, plus the gumption to make their own decisions, you can’t help but grumble about what an ungrateful litter you raised.

But do not judge, lest you be judged. If your offspring could not grab the reins, what does that say about you? After a lifetime of teaching them how to take turns, to step up to the plate, to walk it off- all those great life lessons- you won’t teach them the one about knowing when to take your final bow? (This is a hard one, as you may be learning it and teaching it at the same time.)

How unfair, to have children that put you out to pasture, right in your prime! Why can’t they continue on as second fiddle, while you conduct and orchestrate, as always?

The Lebanese Bostonian poet, Kahlil Gibran, famously noted “Your children are not your children… Though they are with you, they belong not to you…You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts…For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday… You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

As a parent, I know that’s bull: my kids are mine, all mine! But they are my offspring, not my clones. There is something wrong if they don’t spring off, launch from the nest. Our parental warmth is needed to hatch them, but our weight will crush them. We are obliged to accept what we cannot change: that they’re free agents (even if they’ve sold themselves). Even if yours work in the next office, they thrive when they have their very own opportunity, success, even failure; and the chance to learn from you, but do it themselves. Plus, your business needs that regeneration. Very few companies do well under immortal leadership.

Journey starts with single steps, but best to ensure they’re in the right direction. Consider considering: What different challenges will the next generation face, that they will need to face when you aren’t there to guide them? What talents, changes, resources, conversations and perspectives will help navigate that strange terrain? What have you learned till now from your successes and failures that will allow you to face the future with wisdom and integrity? How can you fulfill your emotional and social needs, possibly using talents heretofore untapped,? What do you need to do to maintain my lifestyle without imperiling the economic freedom and security of the company? What can you do now, new and different from ever before, that will leave you with less regret, and more contentment, that you did not accomplish in running your business? A fruitful and challenging thought process and conversation (my usual prescription) will increase the odds of enjoying competitive advantage and personal fulfillment, and averting business and life crises.

There are many fine examples, locally and in our membership, of transition done admirably and creatively. Seniors have scaled back to their favorite job ever (operating a crane, making deliveries) or serving as company scout into the future of the industry, or teaching what they’ve learned (to someone else’s kid), or getting into what thrilled them when they were 12 (a la Passages, by Gail Sheehy). It takes a certain faith in their future and lack of fear to let the next generation face their future with bravery and gratitude. But not as much as putting your own personal arrow in your own personal bow, taking aim, and letting go.

* thanks to Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks

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