Ideas & Stories

In their father’s shadow

I remember when I was young, looking at the rich kids at school and at uni. They always had the good lunches, wore the best clothing, were dropped off in (or later drove) the best cars and lived in houses that (to me) were like mansions. They were a world away from my world.

Most often, their fathers ran big and successful businesses and that identity was attached to their children. For better or for worse.

As these children grew, that identity often haunted them throughout their lives. Instead of being a blessing, sometimes it imposed a sense of expectation, particularly for the oldest child and particularly if a boy. Girls seemed to dodge that pressure but that was often matched by a reluctance for the family to accept girls as being capable to step into the “old man’s shoes”.

Having worked with literally hundreds of family businesses, having looked at succession outcomes over several decades and having mentored and coached a lot of young men and (a few) young women, I can finally say, I do not envy them anymore.

I have observed first-hand the anguish and pressure that a young man (especially a man) can feel when he looks at his father and wonders whether he can be that good. Sometimes the father holds a mystical presence and is seen by all as not just the founder but the person who made it all happen and appears to have never made any mistakes.

In his shadow, the son can be destined for failure. Without proper career and succession planning, the son can enter the business in a haphazard manner and bumble their way through from disaster to disaster. They are given roles that they cannot do, for which they never received instruction nor training and are invariably avoided by all those around them. When they stuff things up, they are moved to a new section of the business to start the whole process over again. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

I have seen a young man sitting at a desk without anything to do. No one goes near the boss’s son. Dad has given no instructions nor proper job descriptions. The son is too frightened to say anything. And in a business that is so successful, the father has now made his biggest mistake ever. And he blames his son.

That pain can last for decades. Even a lifetime.

It is so hard to get this right. The son so often wants to be just like his dad. Or better. He wants to be admired and loved and great at what he does. This is his own expectation of what he is meant to be.

Ironically, daughters seem to find their way into the business more easily. But their talents are often overlooked, and they can waste their lives suppressed in meaningless roles. Their place in the business is often associated with powerlessness and frustration. Just as terrible.

The responsibility to get this right fall to the parents. That includes the mother. It begins with an open and frank discussion with the children (preferably while they are young) about their role in the business and the family’s expectations for them. All of them. Their future is precious and needs to be handled with care.

Entering the business is a ‘right’ that they may have. It should not be an expectation nor a chore (beyond perhaps holiday or after school pocket money for teenagers). It should be professionalised and more akin to the path followed by any other employee rather than someone with special treatment.

For this, a strategy could be mapped out for all family members. It should start with awareness of what the family business does, what work is all about and what values the family and business hold together. This should lead to discussions about the need for hard work, the link between work and reward and the value of education. Indeed, there should be an association between the level of education and relevant experience and the entry level into the family business (or any other business) and the subsequent path for advancement.

In fact, the need for experience elsewhere is well documented. Far better for inexperienced family members to make their mistakes elsewhere and enter the business a few years later when they are less ‘green’. Hopefully that experience was gained at a competitor organisation and hopefully one that is well run and with good systems, practices and training.

We have seen great success where the father facilitates this arrangement with a competitor (often interstate) and with the specific instruction to treat his son like any other employee, perhaps with a little extra love but no doubt with a little extra pressure.

Once that child is ready to join, the task is still not complete. He or she might be ready but there is a whole lifetime ahead of them. They need a career plan. What should they be doing? What do they need to learn? What aspects of the business should they experience? What are their specific capabilities and talents that might give them a particular path over some other path? This needs to be documented, agreed and managed.

And managed means regular reviews of progress, performance and outcomes. Perhaps best facilitated or mentored by (or with) a third party. Mistakes can be expected. Achievements can be acknowledged. Progress must be monitored, and those all-important expectations managed.

Ultimately, the father should be looking to be replaced. Hopefully, that will be with one of his children (or nephews or nieces). But that may not be the right outcome. Maybe the business may be sold before that would ever happen. Maybe the child may choose not to join or to leave before the plan is fully executed.

But importantly. We are not setting the child up for failure. We don’t want their self-esteem to be damaged by the business that surrounds them and their failure to fit and adapt. They don’t have to be in the business and or course, many children chose to follow a different path. Success, happiness and fulfilment is different for everybody and everybody has the path they need to (or should) follow. The business may not be the best thing and not every child that joins the family business will become the CEO.

However, should they choose to join the business, it should be for the right reasons and with the right guidance and in the right way.

Maybe there can be a guiding light behind that giant shadow. And perhaps a little objective advice might just help a family achieve their dreams.


Chris Alp
Alp McNamara