Managing Communications With Difficult Conversations

The hidden pressures that can make managing family businesses a challenge. Penny Webb reflects on the hidden pressures that can make managing family businesses so challenging.

In the autumn of 2010, I was fortunate enough to speak at a conference in Kuala Lumpur which was developed by, and run for, some of the most successful family businesses in the Asia Pacific region. As the older generation of owners spoke, I was humbled by their stories of trial and tribulation which, over time and in seemingly unendurable circumstances driven by war, famine and social/political upheaval, had been overcome.

These men and women had worked all their lives to protect their own legacies in order to provide a future for their children and those in their wider communities. The next generation of owners spoke with pride about their heritage without a hint of entitlement.

Tariq is the 72 year old owner of a hugely successful international family business. It is his life; his identity is inextricably bound up with it. He does not want to retire but his ailing health makes this unavoidable, so this year he will pass the business on to his children. Tariq has 4 children, two sons and two daughters. One of his sons runs a major global subsidiary of the family firm, his other son is working for an investment bank. His two daughters are married with children and heavily engaged in social philanthropy. Tariq knows that his eldest son will take over from him and his younger son will join shortly.

He doesn’t need to worry about his daughters. Tariq is comfortable about the future thanks to the processes, structures, planning and constitutions that are needed to help a family firm to transcend from one generation to the next.

Difficult conversations

But processes alone are not always enough, family dynamics must be negotiated too. Upon delivering my session in Kuala Lumpur, I was joined by an impressive group of next generation family members, all of whom asked: ‘What if I don’t want to work for the family firm?’; ‘How do other cultures manage to provide freedom to their children?’; and most pointedly, ‘How can I talk to my parents about this?’

This is typical. Many next generation members I work with, from across all cultures, tell me, ‘Dad won’t change his mind. He’s too old. I’d let him down and disappoint him.’ This often leaves next generation members to live with seemingly paradoxical emotions of gratitude and guilt, appreciation and resentment and in the worst case scenario, love and hate.

Dealing with these internal conflicts requires the holding of difficult conversations. It is never too late to have these dialogues but they must be planned properly. Moreover, it must remain a joint responsibility of the current and next generation alike. And it often requires external, neutral and expert assistance in mediating between involved parties.

So if you are a family business owner and sense the need for a difficult conversation of your own, perhaps you may want to ponder the following questions:

  • Do you know what your children want?
  • Have you asked them?
  • Have you helped them to understand themselves and their primary needs/wants?
  • Do you know what is important to your parents?
  • Do you understand their own experience and primary needs?
  • Are you willing to learn from each other?
  • Do you have a common language that could breed understanding?
  • How can you ensure a legacy of a responsible father, mother, son and daughter?
  • Can you focus on compassion and forgiveness in the family system?
  • Can you allow for freedom in an interdependent system and how far are you prepared to allow this?

As we plan for the future, it is our hope that all families in business will plan for the difficult conversations. We’ve learned that it is never too late and that legacies and self-respect can be preserved in equal measure.

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