Family Business Owner Driving the Kids Crazy – Someone Call Security
Last month I was speaking at a convention in Vancouver and took a question from the audience that made me laugh, even though I’d heard versions of the question before: “How do I get my 85-year-old father to stop coming to the office and causing all sorts of disruption?”
Before I could answer someone in the crowd shouted, “Remove the wheelchair ramp to the office!” The place went crazy. Laughing uncontrollably myself, I tried to get the room back on track by sharing my own family business story.
Now we all know it’s the prerogative of business owners to work as long as they choose – it’s one of the great perks of owning a business: voting control = management control. The great casualty is most often the succeeding generation, who are forced to walk the fine line between respecting a parent’s right to work and maintaining responsibility for driving profits through innovation.
But sometimes those profits are elusive precisely because parents never, ever leave and change is discouraged.
Fortunately, there is a simple and often overlooked solution that can channel the abilities and desires of both generations while keeping the fundamental goal of making money in focus – it’s called the Honorary Chairman.
Honorary Chairman: Complete with Job Description
I still have a vivid memory of my grandfather’s last business card, carrying the title “Founder and Honorary Chairman.” I loved that title and looking back, I think he did too – the title and the role he carved out for himself was that of wise counsel. It was a job that in some peculiar way suited him, as the founder of a significant manufacturing business, perfectly – a job he was driving toward his entire career. He was a naturally inclined philosopher and contrarian who loved provoking debate – the “why” was always more interesting than the “how” for him. Most importantly, in the last chapter of his life this role was carved out, respected and resourced but was really limited to board meetings and special projects.
The idea of the Office of the Honorary Chairman – and the literal office – always remained a safe haven from the threat of a mundane retirement (code for being relegated to staying home with my grandmother). The title was not, however, a license to wade into the details of ongoing operational issues. Rather, it was a place and a space for the founder to think and offer historical context and principled counsel without all the background noise of everyday business issues that too often cloud judgment.
Interestingly enough, I watched my father do precisely the same thing when I assumed the position of president of his manufacturing business. Culturally, the notion of wise counsel has resided in all our family businesses.
Business owners should be encouraged to establish truly independent advisory boards. Your freshly minted Honorary Chairman ought to be charged with the task of creating that board and chairing the meetings. This is precisely where his or her energies can best be leveraged – for everyone’s personal and professional sanity.
Advisors who ask their business owner clients, “When do you see yourself disengaging from the operations of the business?” can bring much-needed relief to the succeeding generation. Advisors who can encourage the establishment of an advisory board can themselves participate on these boards and thereby gain a front row seat to help families with their transitions.
Are you a strategic advisor offering new ideas or one responding with technical solutions after the fact?