Building believers: Establishing your credibility as a successor

By Andrew Keyt

Nick Perrino's response to his son Joe was blunt: "You're going to blow up this business with your stupid ideas."

Nick had transformed Home Run Inn Pizza from a neighborhood tavern into a 600-seat restaurant on Chicago's southwest side. Joe shared his father's ideas about growing and expanding the family business—yet Nick called these ideas "stupid."

Nick wasn't the only person who directed cynicism at Joe. Employees took shots at his competency and credibility, too. As Joe described it, "I was the son of the owner . . . always living in his shadow. People would say, 'You'd be nothing without your dad. You're riding his coattails!' "

The story of Joe Perrino is the story of the burden carried by every successor in a family business. I call this The Successor's Curse. It arises when a child is born into a pre-existing story—his or her parents' story. That story involves fully formed events and characters. It also has its own history and mythology.

When children of successful business owners come of age and attempt to step into leadership, the weight of this story bears down on them. It casts a long and heavy shadow. Failures are magnified. The successors are compared to everything and everyone that came before. Like Joe, they are told: "You will never be as good as your father."

The Successor's Curse creates a crisis of credibility for the next generation. Successors are seen as reaping the rewards of nepotism. The only reason they have a job is because of their last name. Anyone can see that! They are beneficiaries of the "Silver Spoon Club." These opinions cripple self-esteem and cause successors to see their self-worth as rooted in wealth or the family name rather than in their own skill, talent and capability.

How parents contribute to the Curse

My work with successors has shown that parents sometimes contribute to the Curse's power, inhibiting the next generation from establishing credibility with others. There are two ways this happens. The first is through idealization. This happens when parents see their child as infallible and overlook critical opportunities to give feedback and foster growth. The second is through infantilization. This occurs when parents hold onto the child-image of their offspring after they have become accomplished professionals and adults.

Cursed successors are molded, like clay, by circumstance, history and upbringing. They carry a sense of entitlement, take credit in order to feed their ego, excessively seek praise and approval from others, and become highly emotional and defensive when criticized. Non-family employees, customers and suppliers easily recognize them as feckless—as lacking in credibility.

The concept of the Successor's Curse emerged from (1) in-depth interviews I conducted with successors across the world, and (2) more than 15 years training successors through the Next Generation Leadership Institute at Loyola University. This work has shown that a successor's credibility has two key dimensions: internal and external credibility.

Two kinds of credibility

To establish internal credibility, successors must consider themselves to be credible. This requires building belief from within: I am willing, I am qualified, I am capable of doing the job at hand. The successors I spoke with used a variety of methods to achieve this objective, some of which build self-awareness and self-confidence. These include:

• Outside work experience

• Executive coaching

• 360-degree feedback programs and personality inventories

• Meditation and mindfulness

But internal credibility is only one side of the coin. To truly step out of the shadows and into leadership, a successor must also develop external credibility. Whereas internal credibility comes from a kind of soul-searching from within, external credibility comes from other people. To explain further: Successors earn other people's respect when their reputation is built upon their performance, character and hard work (instead of wealth and the family name as sources of power). They prove that they are leaders worthy of being followed. This is external credibility.

My research has uncovered a number of ways for successors to step out of the shadows of their parents and into the light of their own leadership. The following are lessons learned from the successors I interviewed. Each helped forge a path to internal and external credibility.

1. Earn it! As a successor, you'll likely have to work twice as hard as non-family members in order to be credited with the same level of success.

2. Deal with failure. Stories of your parents' success seem abundant, while their failures are barely a footnote. This idea that failure is not an option is pure fiction. The successors I spoke to understood that failure is simply part of the job; it's necessary. Through failure, you develop your own experience and "gut instinct" for the business.

3. Develop your own sense of what's right. It's tempting to try to repeat what Mom and Dad did, or to make decisions that you think will make them happy. But to be successful over the long term, you must pave your own way for the future. Develop your own instincts and your own sense of right and wrong.

4. Strive for continuous improvement. Always push to improve yourself. In order to step out of your parents' shadow, you must constantly work to become a better leader. Take executive education courses, sit on other company boards and keep your finger on the pulse of what's happening in your industry. Do whatever you can to build a better understanding of yourself, your business and your industry.

5. Remember the importance of family. Dealing with the emotions of parents, siblings and cousins alongside perceptions of fairness and equality can be an incredible challenge. Listen to family members' concerns and make sure that everyone is aligned in their values and vision for the future. This is essential to your success in leading the business into the next generation.

How Joe found his own path

So let's go back to Joe. Last we saw him, he was experiencing a crisis of credibility. His father told him his ideas were stupid and his fellow employees thought he was riding his dad's coattails. Joe could have cowered in the face of the challenge, but instead he chose a different path.

Joe chose to believe in himself and his ideas. He chose to change the perceptions of those people who still saw him as the young boy busing tables at age 15.

Unlike many successors, Joe knew that in order to be true to himself, he couldn't replicate the same path as his father. He had to press forward with his ideas; he had to prove their value and prove his worth as a leader. His initial thought was, "I have to change my image if I am going to change the whole business." So Joe showed up in a suit and tie. The old line managers thought it was a joke, but day after day, despite the snickering and ridicule, Joe kept up his professional appearance. After about five years, this act had an impact: The old line managers followed Joe and arrived at work wearing suits and ties.

Successors can avoid falling victim to the Successor's Curse. By building a sense of self-confidence and credibility, and continually seeking to better themselves, they will prove to those around them that they are more than just a carbon copy of their parents; they are truly powerful and qualified leaders in their own right.

Andrew Keyt ( is the author of Myths and Mortals: Family Business Leadership and Succession Planning, the executive director of the Family Business Center at Loyola University Chicago's Quinlan School of Business and CEO/president of the Family Business Network North America.

Copyright 2016 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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March/April 2016

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