Warming up to teach the next generation

Successful mentoring requires all those who have a stake in the process to be prepared for their roles

By Léon Danco

The conversation starts innocently, but may come as a bolt of lightning. The business owner wanders into the office of a trusted senior manager — let's call him Old Joe — and announces: "You know my son Bill? He's decided he wants to come work for the company after all. He'll be here Monday morning. I'd like you to take him under your wing, teach him what he needs to know."

The employees may have long suspected that the kid who visited the office once or twice in short pants might eventually come on board. But now the moment of truth has arrived, and the boss has singled out Old Joe for the honor of mentoring the young scion. Old Joe, however, may not be too happy about it.

Mentoring the young son or daughter of a family business is treated much too casually by too many owners. Usually the kid just shows up one day in the office and is turned over to Old Joe, without any great thought having been given to what Joe ought to teach him or whether the chemistry between them will be right.

Parents who hope their children will one day enter the business and lead it into the future should begin their education early on. Successful mentoring requires a long warmup. It shouldn't be a two-week survey course in Daddy's business after which the kid becomes executive vice-president. And all of those who have a stake in the process — parents, children, spouses, siblings, and the mentors themselves — have to buy into the idea and be prepared for their part in it. Otherwise, it's not likely to be very effective.

To get an idea of what can happen when the chemistry is all wrong, consult Tom Watson Jr.'s recent book, Father and Son. When young Tom arrived at IBM after the war, Thomas Watson Sr. chose as his mentor the No. 2 man in the corporation, Charley Kirk. Now for Charley, Tom Jr. looms as a huge barrier in his path to the top. Underthe circumstances, some mentors are tempted to slowly poison the Crown Prince.

Kirk, however, seems to have taught Tom Jr. quite a lot about the business. But Tom Jr. admits in his book that he was jealous of his father's reliance on Kirk. He soon told his father that "Charley's not my kind of guy" and began usurping some of Kirk's responsibilities when the rnentor was recovering from appendicitis.

If I were a business owner, I wouldn't want my children to join the company until at least age 30. I don't think kids should come to the business straight out of school in entry-level jobs. Let them go out and get a realjob first! Let them learn the basics of management elsewhere, and prove to themselves that they can measure up to the highest standards.

But the fact remains that most children come into the business pretty young and wet behind the ears. For most parents, turning over the business education of their son or daughter becomes an act of faith. The father must have absolute trust in the mentor to act from disinterested motives, impose the necessary discipline, and impart the appropriate business values.

Parents create the clay with which the mentor will have to work. When the children are growing up, the parents should expose them to heroes — to great coaches, great teachers, great adults they can look up to, people who exemplify values that the parents and society endorse. When children grow up feeling that employees of their father's company are their domestics, when they are led to believe that they are entitled to rule by droit du seigneur, when what is "right" in their opinion is not subject to review, they are unlikely to listen to any mentor. If Dad has been accustomed to bad-mouthing his employees at home, if he's always talking about how they lie and steal from him, any employee who's later given the job of mentoring starts with two strikes against him.

The mentor, for his part, is asked to assume a heavy burden, with many attendant risks. He is being asked to tutor a young person who may gradually annex his responsibilities and perks, who someday will be his boss. (A cartoon I've seen shows a boss introducing his son to a mentorin the company: "Jones," he says, "I'd like you to teach my son here everything you know, starting with the location of your parking space.")

Others may have a stake as well in the mentor's approach and opinions. For example, the same mentor is often asked to teach several of the boss's kids, in which case he is likely to be eventually asked his opinion on the choice of a successor in the business. The owner's opinion can be different from that of his spouse; instead of helping to pick one leader that all can support, the mother may want their children to share leadership and responsibilities. Mentors become "men in the middle." The temptation, when asked for an opinion, is to waffle: 'Well, they are all smart and working hard ...."

Ideally, children and potential mentors should get to know each other well, before the kids show up at the company. Parents should occasionally bring their senior managers and trusted advisors to family dinners. They should take the children on visits to the plant and office, where their potential successors can get to know and respect those who will be passing on valuable knowledge. When the chemistry is right, these mentors will have a major role in the last stages of the children's upbringing.

Most often, mentoring works best when the teacher is much older and accepts that both his own future security and that of the firm are tied to his protégeé's successful mastery of the necessary attitudes and skills. In one industrial company, a son who was nearly 40 years old had to take over after his father died. The father and a key vice-president, however, had made almost all the major decisions, and the son knew little about the strategy that underlay the company's success. He was most fortunate to find a mentor in a senior vice-president, in his late sixties, who was one of the deans of the industry and who found satisfaction in passing on his understanding to an enthusiastic heir.

When the age spread between mentor and student is too close, however, sparks often fly. Matching a 40-year-old sales manager with a 30-year-old son, for example, could be a disaster. If the two become rivals, Dad may have to choose between keeping a valued employee and teaching his son. The father may have to take the manager aside and say: "If you can't work with my son and prepare him for ultimate leadership of my company, you may prefer to leave now and find another job. There is no way you're going to be my successor, but your future can be assured as a mentor."

Mentors have to earn acceptance from their students. They should come to their responsibility with the attitude of "How can I help make this work well?" But successors also have to buy into the relationship, and understand that there is no appeal to a higher court. For once a mentor is accepted, his job is not to be a soft, pliable buddy. A successful family business is not a safe haven for incompetents. There are rules that have to be followed and tough decisions to be made. Discipline is a matter of survival. Mentors must insist on it.

What is to be learned? A lot. Over time, young successors-to-be should probably have a series of mentors, not just one — the senior vice-presidents for marketing, finance, and production, the firm's auditors, bankers, and attorneys, perhaps an outside consultant who has the right background and works well with young people. It is up to these mentors to indicate which skills and attitudes their students must master.

A mentor must challenge heirs to leam what they must learn. But even more important, he must pass on to them the same sense of excitement, of joy, that both he and the founder-parent felt in building the business. Above all, he must help create leadership and a positive attitude toward this responsibility. The young student must earn credibility in the eyes of those who will be his followers.

Mentoring that really counts instills a sense of mission, an appreciation of strategy, an urge to contribute. Today, in too many companies, no one seems to have the heart to lead in these matters. The business owner is lonely and tired of fighting off the alligators snapping at his ankles. His advisors want to play it safe and avoid the big decisions. His senior managers want to be followers. Even his board doesn't want to think about the future.

But the new generation must think about the future of the business. The ultimate destiny of the company lies in their hands. A wise mentor with a clear vision will earn his glory through the accomplishments of his students.

Léon Danco wrote the book on the family business. In fact, he's written four of them. Starting with this issue, the 67-year-old Cleveland-based consultant, whom many consider the founding father of the field, becomes a regular columnist for Fami1y Business.