Helen Froggett from The Accountancy Practice shares some of the strategies they have employed to hand the business over to the next generation. The Accountancy Practice gained a coveted place in the finals for the prestigious Hertfordshire Business Awards in 2019, for Best Family Business.
Family relationships are a minefield for many, littered with loyalties and expectations, betrayal and disappointment. Now compound the challenges by imagining working with your parents, children or your spouse and you have a recipe for some interesting life experiences. How can you turn this potential for pitfalls into something akin to pride and joy? As someone who has worked with my parents, my children and my husband, (not all at the same time!) and who has a keen ear for the experiences of others who run family businesses, here’s part one of a two part feature, sharing some insights which I hope will be helpful.
GOVERNMENT HEALTH WARNING! I would like to stress at this stage that if you are considering, or being ‘encouraged’ to go into business with a family member with whom you have an uncomfortable history, please do yourself a favour and listen to that still calm voice of reason inside you. Someone looking for financial backing or another pair of hands can be very persuasive. If your relationship has been strained in the past, working with a relative can be the final nail in the coffin and the ramifications extend way beyond the two of you. Not only that but you can’t be sure where the loyalties will lie if it all goes pear shaped. Working with family members should only be seriously considered if you actually get on with them well, trust their judgement and like them. It also helps if you believe that you can agree the basics fairly, such as hours of work, pay, standards of dress etc. You’d be surprised how the ‘detail’ can eat away at you if you’re feeling taken advantage of.
1. BREAK THE RECORD : If you start a business with a family member, the most difficult thing many find is open and empathetic communication. Where you actually listen to each other and attempt to see their point of view when it does not coincide with your own. If you are dealing with a multi generational business, inadvertently copying the traditional parent and child types of dialogue can create an imbalance. Once suitable for directing the lives of your children, it becomes an issue when that ‘commanding’ manner lingers into adulthood. Parents think they know best. And perhaps they do, but like any work place relationship, you have to respect the other person’s choice to make decisions and act independently. If you are lucky they will consult but they will soon stop if they get told what to do, rather than learn from an open conversation about the pros and cons of decisions they need to make. Trying to create opportunities to ask the younger generation for their input and opinions on non critical matters helps them learn about considering different viewpoints and the ‘parent’ can use these discussions to share vital experience they have gained.
2. HANDLING OMNIPOTENCY: A sole trader who has grown their business from scratch has a tricky path to tread, if they want to develop it into one which supports two or more members of the family and perhaps non-family staff too. The ‘boss’ is likely to be used to doing things their way, unquestioned. This can raise significant issues when the next generation want to make their stamp on a business. This is compounded when the inevitable feelings of redundancy from the original kingpin surface as they see their ‘baby’ (in this case the business!) taken away from them. Careful and sensitive approaches from the fledgling offspring are necessary to minimise this issue. Involve the original founder with some strategic areas you know interest them and try to incorporate their input to make them feel valued and respected. This does not come naturally to someone intent on proving to their parent that they are more than capable of taking over the business. So it needs serious consideration and an ear for genuine opportunities for consultation.
3. BE SENSITIVE TO EGOS: In the interim period between deciding to pass the baton and the completion of that process it’s a good idea to agree over which areas the original owner has authority and where they will still be regarded as the expert. Someone who feels ‘deposed’ will find themselves defensively lashing out or getting frustrated and depressed if all their power is removed at once.
4. ENCOURAGE CREATIVITY: Try to find new areas which the next generation can ‘own’, areas which excite them and upon which they can make their mark. Whether it a new specialism, new technology, new methods or new systems. This will ensure that moving forward they will see the business as theirs and not simply babysitting it for an elderly relative, which could breed resentment and a feeling of being trapped.
5. INCLUSION: Does your team include family and non-family members? It’s really easy to slip into the trap of ‘off record’ family chats either at work or at home, in WhatsApp groups or DM’s. Decisions made in this way have a habit of being referenced in front of unsuspecting team members who do not have the benefit of the same address or surname. Feeling like you don’t know what’s going on, or that your opinion is not as important as others in the business is the death knell for any business, but needs to be especially guarded against when you are blending a team from family and beyond.
6. TRY TO KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING: If you are working with a family member as well as living with them it is all too easy to talk work at home and at the office. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, burned out and losing all aspects of fun in your life, try to have some sacred time, say after seven in the evening or for a day or so at the weekend where you are not ‘allowed’ to talk about work!
That’s not all folks! Part two of this important subject will be published in February.