Stepping out of the founder’s shadow
We respect our father, who started our family business,” says A (not his real name), 53. “He says we owe him a lot, and we know that. But he is a dictator who does not want to retire, even if he is 80. My brothers and I had no choice but to work for him right out of college. Our employees are loyal, and our business prospered even in the pandemic. But none in the next generation want to enter the business, as the founder keeps on saying that no one can replace him. When I brought up the issue of succession, he shouted that we are waiting for him to die, and he threatened to sell the business to outsiders. This would be unfair to us, since we are still working very hard, but we don’t know what to do. How can we talk to my father? Our employees and customers love him. He donates to charity and the church. But he is domineering in private, and it’s hard to live with him. What can we do?”
Talk to your father as a group. You and your brothers are in your 50s, and whether your father admits it or not, deep down he knows that without you, the business would not have prospered as much. Explain that you respect him, so you want the company to continue in capable family hands.
Founders often find it difficult to let go, particularly if their life is tied to the enterprise. Your father may unconsciously fear being relegated to the sidelines if succession is brought up, so reassure him that he is forever valuable to the company.
I agree that it is not right for the business to be given to strangers on a whim—I doubt that your father is serious about this threat. He likely lashed out in rage and might have even privately regretted those words.
That said, do not expect your father to formally retire—or he will likely go into depression. But his role needs to evolve. Rather than micromanaging daily activities, your father should become an elder statesman, the board chair rather than the CEO. While you and your brothers run the business day-to-day and train the next generation, your father can commit energy and time to new ventures and philanthropy.
Talk to him. Keep your cool, rehearse what to say and how to say it. But do not let yourselves be bullied, even if your father is raised on a pedestal by the wider world.
“Sometimes the individual entrepreneur is in fact as wise and kind as the image portrays him to be,” say Marion Hampton and Ben Francois of BanyanGlobal Family Business Advisors. “But more often, that real person is all too human … [They] make mistakes in business and in their personal lives … [Sometimes they] believe their own publicity and consistently choose to grow their image over helping others to shine. Sometimes, they hold their children up to such high standards … that the next generation feel (rightly so) they can’t possibly meet them.
“Iconic founders often lack empathy for the sacrifices others are making. They often see the world through one lens … at the expense of all other priorities. As family members seek the iconic founder’s approval, he … just pushes harder to promote a super-human image. Those closest to the founder find it hard to challenge him in any setting, business or family, for risk of being disregarded by the icon—better to agree and stay in good graces than confront and be shut out.”
What if your father still does not listen? You cannot change him—he is likely set in his ways—but communicate openly among yourselves. With or without your father’s approval (or knowledge), craft a good constitution to govern collective decision-making and policy formation, which is essential when he passes away.
“You do not have to be tied to the founder’s version of how family owners should operate,” say Hampton and Francois. “Have the courage to say, ‘We need to do this differently.’ Families who move successfully past the iconic founder refresh their strategies and push their businesses to evolve. In the family, they allow the icon to fade and instead acknowledge the talented and flawed relative.”
I wish you well, and God bless.
Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at Lazada or Shopee, or the ebook at Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]
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