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Letting Go Is Hard to Do (But You Still Gotta Do It)

Oct. 25, 2018
Don’t be the 93-year-old guy whose 68-year-old son 'isn’t quite ready' to take over the business.

Early in my career, I had the good fortune to attend seminars led by the late Leon Danco, a noted consultant to family businesses. He had particular skill—and took particular delight—in waking up scions to the realities of life in a family company, and in urging them to upgrade their management skills. A master storyteller, he often underscored points with memorable quips that stuck with his charges for decades. One of his favorites was: “Happiness is Control,” a critical point for frustrated sons or daughters (and their parents). 

The dynamics of every family are complicated, and adding in issues of money, power, and collaboration only makes them more so. Who has control, and when and how to share or transfer it, is typically the toughest challenge for any family business. The new generation asks: “When will the old man get out of the way?” The old generation wonders: “How can I trust a kid whose diaper I changed not so long ago, or who wrecked my car, or who never cleaned up her room, etc.?”

It’s a minefield that many family companies never navigate. But you can, if you focus on the happiness of control and what it means both to you and to that son, daughter, father or mother across the table.

Not long after I started in our family business, I grew a beard (which I still have, 50 years later). On a visit with our largest customer—picture this: our sales manager has to take the boss’s son to meet his meal ticket, and the kid shows up looking like a hippie!—the buyer asked me why I had a beard.

“Because my father told me not to,” I said.

Fortunately, he thought that was funny. And he soon came to recognize me as a change agent at a supplier that desperately needed to change.  We got along well for years to come.

Let’s examine this in a context of control. I grew the beard as an act of rebellion, an attempt to take control of something, anything, from my father. And it worked: it drove him nuts! But it also was a learning experience for both of us. He recognized that he could no longer control me, and I quickly realized that if I was going to control something, I’d better get serious about earning that control. Beard and all, I built an excellent relationship with that buyer, who’d been quietly fed up with our Sales Manager and was developing a wandering eye. My father, meanwhile, watched me mature in the job, and became increasingly comfortable with relaxing his control. He let me grow, supporting me when I made mistakes and cheering me when I got things right. He recognized that I was building a new skill set for a new generation, skills that I couldn’t learn from him. Even better, he recognized what he could teach me. He taught me values instead of skills, and those have formed the foundation of my work and my career.

Alas, now it’s my turn. With neither of my children interested in succeeding me, I started years ago thinking about how my company would survive into a next generation. I was fortunate to find an ambitious young man who aspired to own and run a business such as mine, and we have spent 15 years navigating through our own polite struggle for control.

Finally, this year, long after he (rightly) felt he was ready, we entered into an agreement that gives him controlling ownership now and will purchase my remaining interest over several years. Living through this process—in essence, seeing it through my father’s eyes—has been a difficult journey for me. I knew at the start that I had found the right guy, a partner whose values echoed mine, and whose commitment to building new skills would allow him to do a better job than I ever had. Yet ceding control was harder than I ever expected it to be.

It’s just not easy to walk away, even when you know it’s time.

One of Danco’s best stories was about a father attending a seminar about succession in family businesses. During a break, he approached Leon, saying that while he was eager to pass the business on to his son, the young man just wasn’t quite ready to take over. Could Leon please talk to the kid and get him on the right path?

Leon told us that he heard this all the time—from virtually every father—but in this case the father was 93, and the son was 68!

Recalling that story was an important step in my own transition; I don’t want to be that guy.

More importantly, Danco’s phrase, “Happiness is Control,” has served me well over the years, in situations far beyond the thickets of management and ownership succession. A struggle for control is at the heart of almost all human conflict—between warring nations, or competing companies or sports teams, between parents and children—and I have found it helpful, in understanding any human problem, to study it through that lens. What is the control issue that is driving a particular behavior? How can acknowledging, understanding, and accommodating that issue help to solve the underlying problem?

All of which leads us back to you: What’s your current struggle for control? Are you that impatient kid waiting for some coot to get out of your way? Or are you the coot, painfully aware that this impetuous kid just isn’t ready? Whichever it is, you’ll probably get along better—and make more money, and sleep better at night—if each of you can focus less on your own need for control, and more on understanding your partner’s fears and hopes.

You might even—dare I say it?—find happiness.

Early in his career, Alec Pendleton took control of a small, struggling manufacturing company in Akron, Ohio, and sold off the unprofitable divisions and rebuilt the factory, quadrupling sales in seven years. He has been CEO of Summit Tool Company for 34 years, and is the author of the blog Big Ideas for Small Companies, powered by the MPI Group

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