How to Take Over the Family Business

Family businesses are very common in the dirt world. It’s not unusual to see a third generation taking over from a second, or even the fourth generation taking over from the third.

Many times, members of the preceding generations are still involved in the day-to-day workings of the business, which can create tensions between say, the dad who’s successfully run the business for decades, and the son or daughter who’s eager and filled with new ideas.

If you’ve been handed the reins, but other (older) family members are still involved, you have a choice as to how you present your new ideas. This choice is an important one, as it affects not only the energy you bring to the work environment, but also family relationships that have their own dynamics.

You may, in fact, see things very differently than your dad, given the 20-, 30- or even 40-year difference between you. You may have had different training, or you may see a different role for technology to play. Or you may simply have a different point of view, based on your own life experiences to date.

And just because you’re the leader of the firm now doesn’t necessarily mean that you have absolute control of what happens in it.

The risk of not building on the lessons of the past.

If you have an idea for something that needs to change in the way you’re doing business, it may not help to charge in like a bull in a china shop. After all, your dad or other family members made a success of this business.

Start by forming a good relationship with them. This means “listening to what they have to say. This is allowing you to be influenced by them,” said Willink. “This is giving them the ancient ego massage, and letting them know that hey, yeah, that sounds like a great idea. And that's what we're going to do.”

No matter what opportunities you may see for innovation, there’s quite a bit they’ve been doing right to bring the business this far. “There's a reason that they were successful for 40 years,” Willink said. “And when they say to do something, there's probably a good reason why they're saying to do it.”

If your initial reaction is to tell them, "Well, we’re doing things differently now," you risk missing out on an opportunity to learn from the prior generation.

As Willink asked, “Is that a respectful response to someone that's been doing something for 40 or 50 or 70 years? And they're giving you this opportunity, handing you the business?” If they say how you should do a particular task and you respond with, “‘Nah, we’re changing it up, Dad,’ what do you think you’re going to get? The reaction is not going to be good.”

The importance of choosing your battles.

Instead of leading with an adversarial stance, why not start with your dad’s recommendation and make any necessary adjustments as you go along? Learn from his experience, and build on it.

“You might think, ‘Yeah, but I'm right.’ What good is being right, if it hurts our relationship? What good is winning the argument if now I create more frustration for myself?” asked Willink. You want to choose your battles. “Am I gonna fight every battle with my dad, about how we should do this project or who we should hire?” And, if you fight him on everything, how receptive will he be in the future when you actually do come up with a better idea than his?

Instead, listen to his plan and assess what’s right about it. Begin by executing on his plan rather than assuming yours is better, and see what happens. It’s an approach that takes some humility on your part but can pay big dividends.

Plus, even if your plan is better, how much better is it? Does it save enough time to make up for the time you’ve spent arguing back and forth? Will the better outcome compensate for the awkwardness you've added to your relationship?

Disagreement among family leaders also creates tension and, worse, confusion among your workers. If you aren’t providing clear direction, your workers don’t know where they, or the project, are headed.

Takeaways.

If your dad didn’t know what he was doing, how exactly did he create a business that’s robust enough to turn over to you? Acknowledge this fact, and allow him to feel good about it. You wouldn’t be the heir apparent if you didn’t have your own good ideas, and an ego of your own.

As you take over the reins, pace yourself — in terms of the changes you want to make. There’s time both to learn from the past and contribute to the future. This shift in leadership is a major transition not only for him but also for you, your work teams, and your customers.

A benefit to not picking fights as you come through the door is that — when you do have a fresh take on things to share — he’s likely to be more receptive to hearing it because you will have gained his trust. Don’t be adversarial just for the sake of being different. By choosing your battles, you can win the ones that actually matter.

Spend more time asking questions about why something was or wasn’t done in the past. Perhaps in 1978, he had a bad experience with that piece of equipment and can save you the trouble of dealing with its modern day equivalent. Or perhaps you’ll both learn that times have changed and there’s a better solution now.

Whether you’re building a business from scratch, or taking over a family business, the leadership fundamentals are the same: Listen, with respect. Allow the other person’s experience to influence your own. Ask earnest questions. Build on prior successes.

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