They never ask me!

By James E. Barrett

If your kids resist your advice, they may be afraid you'll lecture, nag or drone on for too long.

Many business owners who have turned over management duties to younger family members expect to play a role as valued senior advisers. A large number among this group find themselves waiting in vain for requests for help.

These folks—primarily but not exclusively males, and usually over age 50—are treasure houses of experience, good judgment, broad acquaintance and special know-how in the industry or marketplace in which they've worked. They're eager to share what they know and what they've learned with their younger relatives and protégés. Most still have some financial interest in the business and want it to continue to be successful for lots of good reasons.

In many cases, they're simply ignored. In others, they're actively resisted. Efforts are made to deprive them of information, contacts with people or involvement in management.

The young people who consciously deprive themselves of these resources often wind up presiding over calamitous outcomes that could have been prevented. Recent examples in which I've become involved include disastrous extensions of credit, badly planned or poorly executed business expansions, disruptions of relationships with key customers or suppliers, frequent shifts in operating hours or pricing models that cause serious retail customer dissatisfaction, and a host of problems involving long-time employees.

What's going on? The younger executives are neither stupid (if they were, they wouldn't have been selected as successors) nor evil. For the most part, they are uncomfortable about excluding older relatives. The common thread here is that assistance from the senior executive would entail extra aggravation that the younger folks deem unacceptable. They'd rather take their chances and forgo the help.

The seniors often fail to perceive these roadblocks. Even when they're told—in detail, often during tension-filled or angry conversations—they don't get the message. It's a classic case of blind spots. And we all have some.

Causes of trouble

Some common difficulties involve differences in generational outlook or managerial style. The senior folks often allow their comments to expand into lectures or drone on about issues that may be of special interest to them but have no place in a management discussion.

Public disapproval of the younger executives—whether spoken, hinted at or expressed in body language—should be an absolute no-no. Usually the senior person understands this; when such incidents occur, they arise out of accumulated frustration or as a deliberate tactic born from anger. Expressions of disapproval can be especially damaging when the senior person is visiting with customers, suppliers or other outsiders who disagree with a particular company action or policy.

In other cases, successors may be reluctant to ask questions for fear that the senior's answers will go on too long. (We asked the time and he explained how to make a clock.) Worse, he may answer questions that nobody has asked. Legitimate desires to educate or be helpful must be expressed at the right time; otherwise, they might be perceived as intrusive.

Seniors are particularly susceptible to griping by old pals who are long-time current or former employees. Accepting their story as the entire story, becoming their advocate or promising them results without checking with the active managers usually ends up exacerbating problems rather than solving them.

A serious, frequent sin of retired or semi-retired folks is tapping of the company grapevine. This may be a way to obtain information they've been denied, check up on how the troops really see things or rally opposition to a change they don't support. But it undercuts and weakens the present management. And the younger managers may retaliate by further isolating the former chief.

Seven suggestions for seniors

1. Provide unwavering support. Of course, the kids will make some mistakes. Do and say nothing to criticize, except in private talks with them, with the board or with your outside advisers.

2. Stay out of their personal lives. You may be bothered by the way they spend money on spouses, houses, cars or personal interests. So long as it's their own money, and not from the business, leave it alone. Some of them will make serious mistakes with marriages or wealth, but they're adults and should have that freedom. If you insist on holding control, however, well-intended, you will not help them to learn. The result will be resentment and more trouble.

3. Ask questions. Asking questions will encourage the kids to explain and sell their ideas. Your questions should focus on what, where, when and how much. These types of questions help make general goals and ideas more specific. Avoid asking “who” and “why” questions, which tend to produce defensive reactions and don't reveal the quality of their thinking. When they answer you, listen—without interrupting.

4. Focus on the future. Too many seniors review the past to point out the lesson learned and predict that a similar situation will arise again. Better to accept the young people's plan as presented. Then focus on helping them manage potential problems. What do they think could go wrong with their plan? What would be the worst problems? What's the probability that such problems might occur? With these questions, The Old Man has quietly led the young managers through useful thinking. No answers. No nagging. Then the kids may ask if The Old Man has ever encountered anything like this before and will be glad to hear about his experience.

5. Build on small successes. A series of small triumphs builds the confidence to take on larger challenges. Look for opportunities to encourage the younger folks to take on small risks. Building genuine self-confidence is a vital contribution. Tearing it down doesn't help anyone.

6. Reroute complainers and follow up. Senior family members have established valued, long-time ties to many people. When those people complain about the younger executives, The Old Man should follow this procedure: Thank them for their comment, and then direct them to take it up with the young executive who's now in charge. Tell them that if they can't get satisfaction there, you'd like to hear from them again. After a decent interval, follow up to ask whether they spoke to the successor and how everything turned out. After a while they'll learn that they can't get action from you without following the proper channel, although you're still interested.

7. Don't whine. At any age we can slip into this mode. Watch for it.

If you follow these seven suggestions, the kids will be glad to have you around, and you won't be complaining that you're never asked. You'll have completed your transition to the role of useful senior family member.

James E. Barrett ( heads the family business practice of Cresheim Inc. in Philadelphia.

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Summer 2004

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