How to Take Over the Family Business
Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021
Family businesses are very common in the Dirt World. You'll often see a third or fourth generation taking over their family business. That's an amazing legacy.
But when you're the young person who's taking over? It's a real challenge.
Often, the older generation hands you the reins—but then they hang on. They tell you you're in charge—but they won't let you do what you need to do or innovate quickly. You both see things differently because of your age, and you start to wonder if a particular generation is to blame.
That's frustrating. And while all working relationships have friction at times, it's harder when the friction is between parent and child, siblings, or other family members.
How you handle taking over the family business is crucial. It affects not only your working relationships but also your family dynamics. Leadership expert and former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink breaks down how you can take over the family business gracefully.
Acknowledge their accomplishments
According to Jocko, you must first form a good relationship with your family. And not just as relatives—you're now business partners.
Just like any other business partnership, this means listening to what they have to say and letting them influence you (more on that in a minute). But with family, you also have to do what Jocko calls "giving them the ancient ego massage.”
Your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or whoever else was running the show built a successful business. Sure, maybe they could have done some things better. But they obviously got some things right. As Jocko points out, “There's a reason they were successful for 40 years."
Your family worked hard, and they created a business that’s robust enough to turn over to you. Your first step in leading that business is to be humble and acknowledge what they've done to bring it this far.
Listen and let them influence you
When you take over the family business, you've likely got lots of changes in mind that will take the company even further. But when it comes to making those changes, there's a right and a wrong way to go about it.
The right way is to listen first. Your family members have experience in the industry and the business that you don't have yet. “When they say to do something, there's probably a good reason why they're saying to do it," Jocko points out.
You can listen to them and learn from that. Maybe your idea isn't as great as you thought it was. Maybe it could be a good idea, if you implement it a little differently.
But if you don't listen, you'll never know—and you could very well charge headlong into a series of mistakes. Worse, you'll create strain in the family.
When your family tells you what to do, Jocko continues, "If your initial reaction is to tell them, 'Well, we’re gonna do it different now,' what do you think you're going to get? Is that a respectful response to someone who's been doing something for 40, 50, or 70 years? And they're giving you this opportunity, handing you the business? The reaction is not going to be good.”
Listening to people wins their respect.
By the way, this concept also applies when you're taking over the family business alongside your siblings. They may not have the experience the older generation has, but your family brought them into the business for a reason—just like they brought you in for a reason. Listen to your siblings, and be willing to let their insights influence how you do things.
Choose your battles
Now, maybe you really do have a great idea, and your family should buy into it . . . but they're not. It's frustrating, because you know you're right.
But Jocko asks, “What good is being right if it hurts our relationship? What good is winning the argument if now I create more frustration for myself?”
That's why he recommends choosing your battles. For the sake of your sanity and your family, you can't fight every single battle about how to do a project or who to hire.
"And by the way, if I fight 10 out of 10 battles, how receptive is my dad the one time I have a good idea?" Jocko asks. "I fight him on everything, so he's not listening to me when I actually have a legitimate, good idea."
Because you didn't let your dad (or your brother or whoever else) influence you, they won't let you influence them. You didn't trust their advice? Fine. They won't trust yours, either. But if you have a track record of listening and implementing their ideas and valuing their wisdom, then when you have a good idea they will more than likely value it.
Try it their way
So what do you do when you know you're going to back down from a certain battle? You listen to the other person's plan. And then Jocko says, "I try and use my dad's plan. [I say,] 'Hey Dad, I know you've been doing this a long time. That sounds like a good plan. Let me go execute it."
Now you may still think your plan is better. But it's not about whether your plan is better. . . it's about how much better it is.
Jocko recommends asking yourself, "How much better is your plan, and how beneficial is it for you to spend all that time arguing the change you want to implement—because your ego wants to implement it?"
Your plan may save you four hours, but you have to spend twelve hours arguing with your dad to get him to try it. That didn't save you any time; it cost you time.
You know what would have saved you time? Saying, "Hey, Dad, sounds like a great plan. We'll go execute it." And then you go into the field and make a couple adjustments to make that plan work better. Maybe it takes you an hour to make that happen, but then it saves you three hours in the field. Great! Plus, you didn't argue with your dad.
"And by the way, your dad trusts you more now. And now when you have a more legitimate plan about something that is incrementally more important, he's actually going to listen to you," Jocko adds.
When the people at the top are fighting, the rest of the company descends into chaos, too.
Jocko explains, "You want to know technically what it does [when the family is fighting]? We don't know what direction we're going. That's what it does. And that's not good."
All that tension and confusion at the top trickles down to your workers. They need clear direction to know where they—and the project—are headed. The problem is, all the family members who are involved in the company are trying to give that direction. And they're not backing down.
"Are you going to be able to have your dad back down his ego after he was successful in this business for 50 years?" Jocko asks, then answers, "No. It's not going to happen."
And you're not a defeatist for admitting that. Instead, that's a winning attitude. You're keeping things in perspective, and you're not arguing with people you love about things that truly don't matter in the long run. By being humble today, you're paving the way to bring about some of the changes you want to make later.
"We get ourselves wound up," Jocko says. "We think that our idea is so much better than everybody else's. It's not. The other ideas worked for 50 years. Cool. We'll go with it. Maybe we start to integrate changes in the future, or we start to assess how those changes would impact."
Ask earnest questions
When you're taking over the family business, it pays to lean on their hard-earned expertise.
For example, Jocko states, "Maybe I ask my dad questions like, 'Hey Dad, I know you do it like this. How come you never did this?' And he says, 'Because it doesn't work because of this.' And then you can say, 'Okay, I didn't know that. Thank you for telling me.'
"Or maybe he says, 'We never invested in that because of this.' And you can say, 'Oh, well do you think it would be smarter to invest in it now?' And your dad says, 'Probably.'"
According to Jocko, asking earnest questions like these is a key component of leadership. He clarifies, "Not questions to set you up or questions to make you look bad. Not questions to prove that I'm right. But earnest questions."
Earnest questions typically start with "Why?" like Jocko's examples above. Asking why helps you word your questions respectfully and open an honest conversation with the person.
Here's another example from Jocko: "Hey Dad, how come we never invested in this piece of equipment? Because it seems like it would be a good idea, but I know if it was a good idea you probably would have thought of it."
Maybe your dad did buy that equipment in 1978, and it broke down all the time and cost a ton of money to operate. Maybe that's why he's always rented equipment. Maybe that's why he won't buy this machine that you think is great—because you've never worked with it. Or maybe you’ll both learn that times have changed and there’s a better solution now.
As you take over the family business, remember that you've got a lot to learn. You've also got a lot to offer—and you will get to make changes in due time.
But be patient. It takes time to learn, grow, humble yourself, and earn your family's trust as a business leader instead of the kid with the skinned knee or runny nose.
To help move things along, follow Jocko's six rules of thumb for taking over the family business:
- Acknowledge their accomplishments
- Listen and let them influence you
- Choose your battles
- Try it their way
- Humble yourself
- Ask earnest questions
With these leadership fundamentals in place, you can become a leader in the family business—and in the family.
Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021