How to Enhance Involvement by Younger Generations in the Family Enterprise
YOUNG ADULTHOOD today is a challenging life stage. It is rife with struggles related to managing the emerging responsibilities of adult life. If ownership or management of a family enterprise is an expectation, the pressures only mount.
Family enterprise ownership requires deep commitment and responsibility. To effectively step into the role, it takes a great deal of emotional maturity, interpersonal skillfulness, and an understanding of an owner’s role and responsibilities. Unmanaged expectations on the part of the present owners toward the rising generation could result in a breakdown in family relationships and potentially spell doom for the family business.
Expectations run high when a family looks to its young members to take the necessary steps to assume leadership and/or ownership of the family enterprise. Those in the emerging adult stage (ages 18 to 28) are in a critical time for ownership development. Yet they’re also in the throes of developmental changes that include learning to become independent from their family — both in proximity and with relation to financial dependency. Some may want to pursue a career separate from the family enterprise, while some who join the family business may feel an extra level of intensity around performance expectations.
It’s normal for young adults to wish to forge their own paths during this stage. Older family members must create space for connections and learning while enabling emerging adults to explore and express their independence. It is important to help them understand that the door to involvement in the enterprise is open and that there are many paths to contribution.
Importantly, given the social and cultural context of business today, it can be particularly challenging for members who fall into Millennial (born 1981-1996) or iGen cohorts (born 1997-2012) to step into an established family enterprise. Millennials, for example, are observed to prefer jobs that make a difference over those that provide a large salary, and their iGen counterparts show less interest or movement toward independence.
Contrast what these generations face with that of Baby Boomer patriarchs or matriarchs (born 1946-1964) who are all about action and who expect their children and grandchildren to want to be just like them. They may look down on their Millennial family members who prefer a more balanced life. Development of these emerging adults as enterprise owners needs to be approached with empathy and thoughtfulness.
For the multigenerational family enterprise to thrive, owners and managers need to be open to co-creating the future while recognizing the different values, aspirations, and goals between the Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, and iGen cohorts. This entails:
1. Building and maintaining a strong family dynamic. Too often, senior generations move into ownership development without recognizing that a strong emotional environment in the family is a necessary foundation. This includes having values-driven behavior, open communication, constructive expression of emotion, appreciation for the diversity of skills and interests, and so on. Families need to aim for positive family experiences that help members form a sense of “together, we are stronger.” This can occur by sharing stories about individual members who live the family’s values. However, this involves showcasing a diverse set of values, including ones that cross generations so as to promote a feeling of inclusiveness and respect. One family professionally designed “family trading cards” similar to those popular in sports, creating experience across generations.
2. Becoming a learning family. A learning family proactively designs learning opportunities to advance both individual talent and the collective brain trust. It begins with a commitment by individuals to manage their biases as they experiment, take risks, and try new ways of doing things without fear of reprisal or getting it wrong. Family members give and receive feedback openly and constructively. While learning is considered a continuous process, a tangible goal is the ability to trust one another and communicate and collaborate for the long term.
3. Making learning a two-way street. It is useful if both older and younger family members are willing to allow the sharing of wisdom and create space to learn from each generation’s values. The senior generation may need to develop new skills to better share its wisdom and legacy and to give the next generation space to grow and become confident and capable as the “new guard.”
4. Marrying passions with business issues. Engaging family members in learning is more of an art than a science. It requires patiently exploring areas of individual interest and passion and marrying those with business needs and priorities — ideally in creative ways. One family involved in the pet products industry engaged members of the rising generation who loved cooking by setting up a cooking class with a specialist to develop dog and cat food recipes. It was a huge hit!
5. Respecting diverse viewpoints. Members of family enterprises are often dispersed and diverse in multiple dimensions — including age, gender, geography, knowledge, abilities, values, interests, and family roles. Placing value on the diverse set of collective learning styles and intelligences in the family not only cultivates inclusiveness but also potentially offers ways of thinking and doing things that, through synergy, may amplify your competitive advantage. This involves respecting others’ opinions and seeking common ground without forcing one single preference or perspective on other members. Seeking consensus (not unanimity) through fair process yields greater commitment and engagement over the long term.
Wendy Sage-Hayward has been a family business owner for more than 25 years and is a senior consultant at The Family Business Consulting Group. Gaia Marchisio is a family enterprise researcher, consultant, educator, speaker, and writer with 25-plus years of impact across global family enterprises, academic institutions, corporations, and public-sector organizations. Barbara Dartt is a Principal Consultant for The Family Business Consulting Group. Their new book is Own It! How to Develop a Family Enterprise Owner’s Mindset at Every Age. Learn more at www.thefbcg.com.
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