Do “fossilised” owner/parents threaten the survival of their own family businesses?

intergenerational change




An increasing number of family business owners are now past their best decision-making days.

With many over 70 years of age they are fossilising on the job, risking the survival of their businesses and families, and the jobs and families of the employees who depend on them.

This is not a criticism of what they’ve achieved in their lives. Many are successful entrepreneurs who’ve built vibrant businesses from nothing to provide jobs for many; to feed, clothe and educate their own and their employees’ families, and to make enormous contributions to their communities and to the Australian economy in general.

The GFC disrupted a lot of people’s plans and the onward march of time takes no prisoners. Over a long life we all go through “ages and stages” and because family business cultures are powerfully shaped by their charismatic leaders, some businesses (like some pets) take on many of their owners’ characteristics. With age comes a greater desire for caution and security, this doesn’t translate well for businesses operating in competitive markets.

For very good biological and psychological reasons most people, especially leaders, move through several life stages: dependency > learning > doing > supervising > teaching > leading > mentoring > story telling.

Leaders leave far better family and business legacies when they plan and implement their own transitions into guides / mentors / sponsors to the next generation, sometime during their 60s. It’s clearly harder once they’re in their 70s, and monumentally more difficult in their 80s. But that’s nothing compared to the challenges faced by anyone trying to work with them!

To avoid fossils becoming the main geological strata in the business graveyards of our next 10 years they need to be motivated and helped to transition leadership, management and ownership to a new generation of family members, employees, competitors – or a combination thereof. The alternative is for them to close down and walk away from the businesses they’ve loved and laboured over for so long, or allow them to be hoovered up by larger organisations that will strip the assets and retrench the staff.

There’s no magic bullet we can (legally) use to solve the fossil problem, although we know more than a few next genners looking for munitions. It takes family courage and a willingness to work on creating viable options for owners, family members-in-waiting and employees to counter the effects of family and business fossilisation.

Given the stakes, this is one game that’s well worth the candle.

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