Family Business Succession Planning



Too early one Saturday, accompanying my nine year old to his basketball game, I commiserated with other bleary eyed parents about how it has become our fate to sacrifice our own self actualization in order to provide a stimulating experience for our children.

As I looked around the room, I was impressed with the wide range of parents’ ages; some were old enough to be the parents of other parents. I considered an ideal age to undertake the noble job of parenting. Wait too long, you lose the energy and patience of youth; too soon, you may have not acquired sufficient wisdom, or not sowed your wild oats.

A comparable issue faces the entrepreneur who is not finished striving, attaining and succeeding, basking in the glow that accomplishment, power and ownership promises. Their adult children might be anxiously chomping on the bit, over-ripening on the vine, and in the extreme, it has happened that the child retires at 65 while the parent still rules at 90.

As a business owner/speaker once explained at a Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley event, “the day I retire is the day I don’t get a personal wave from the Cardinal, as I march down Fifth Avenue on Veteran’s Day.”

This is not an uncommon stand as people live longer, and society continues to devalue and disempower the elderly. But there is also a new opportunity: a second adulthood, where one can derive satisfaction from “giving back” what they have learned, filling a deep need. Mentoring and coaching have caught on even with entrepreneurs in their 30’s and 40’s: how much more valuable when one has gained perspective, nerve, and maybe even “found themselves”?

So, mentoring is not your thing, but still want somewhere to go in the morning? Gail Sheehy, author of New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time suggests that in your second adulthood the activities that gave you pleasure when you were 12 years old might give you surprising satisfaction. So much for youth wasted on the young: enjoy a youthful renewal while your kids explore the pleasures of ownership, management, and a first adulthood.

The sticky issue of the non-retiring mature owner was tackled in an internet discussion group recently (courtesy of NetMarquee Online Services E-Journal, Here are some highlights of that exchange:

  • An owner contemplating succession wonders what to DO after reducing involvement in the business. The prospect of suddenly heading off to Florida and golfing after a highly productive career running a business may be less than appealing.
  • Increasingly, we are seeing owners beginning entirely new careers. running foundations, writing, teaching, serving on boards.
  • I believe in succession but not necessarily in retirement.
  • Develop a succession plan for the next generation and for the founder/current president. Founders have specific skills that enabled them to start the business in the first place. Take advantage of these skills, with the parent reporting to the successor. This often occurs easily because they have become peers over the years and respect each other’s abilities. In other situations this becomes hairy because of the role reversal. Solving that dynamic can be extremely important to both of them personally and can be done with the intervention of a psychologist/facilitator. ..
  • What can compassionate children do to tell their parents to move aside? It is the parents who should have sorted this out in advance; it is a totally unfair burden in every way to place upon the children.
  • Many have suddenly discovered that life is not all about working long hours and never going home. They are enjoying a more relaxed life style; they may well have been adequately paid off and do not absolutely need to work, but want a little something to do; and they are talking to their friends about how things have changed for the better.

It is ironic to think that the bold, risk tolerant entrepreneur would hesitate to retire because of their fear of the unknown, fear of empowering their children to take over, or fear of discarding the daily grind.

Facing change and mortality has never been easy. But there is good reason that the age old task of handing off the baton of power and control has been deemed “the final act of greatness.” What was greatness in your years in the saddle might metamorphose into something meaningful and serendipitous as you face the sunset.