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The 'Generation Gap' in a family business is potentially perilous

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“Why don't my kids have the same values I do?”

“What can I do to make them think like me?”

“How do I ensure that my kids will work hard and stay motivated if I leave them a substantial inheritance?”

As a family business adviser, these are the type of questions parents running family businesses and/or leaving significant wealth to their children often ask me. Many of them are frustrated with their kids' attitudes toward work. My clients are not alone in these concerns.

In a study exploring issues impacting families of wealth (Williams and Preiser) 3,250 family leaders were interviewed. They concluded that family leaders have three main concerns about their children's future and their legacy:

Will our current plan successfully transition family values and wealth to the next generation?

How can we prepare our heirs so that wealth is a force of good in their lives?

What should our heirs be doing to prepare themselves for wealth (their inheritance) and responsibility?

These “kids” feel their parent's anxiety about their work habits and are likely to respond defensively, producing even greater conflict between the generations. As a result of these negative interactions I often find myself working with adult children to help them create effective strategies to “manage” their parent's anxiety about their differing values and work ethic.

However the reality is that children need their parent's approval and therefore a more powerful solution would be to help parents to shift their perspective in order to reduce the friction between themselves and their children.

Understanding Your Children's Work/Life Philosophy
Parents must take some responsibility for the attitudes their kids have developed about work, since they have served as role models. For instance, is it any surprise that kids may seem less committed to businesses than their parents may like due to growing up in a household of workaholics? Is it wrong for kids to seek a more balanced life?

Parents must curb their tendency to judge first and listen second (if at all). It's also valuable to try to eliminate any disconnect, but that process needs to start early:

Open a dialogue about work with your kids;

Ask them questions about what they want;

Let go of what you can't change; and

Don't operate from fear.

It's also important that kids have realistic expectations about the work world, so it's a good idea to have them work somewhere else first to learn some invaluable “life lessons.” In addition, as a family business advisor, I coach parents to accept their kids for who they are and celebrate what they are good at, even if it's different from their own skills.

One of my family business consulting clients was good with numbers, while his daughter/employee was good with people. The dad really rode her about what he considered to be a deficiency until he came to the realization that it was far healthier (and better for the business) if he accepted their differences and put her in a position to positively impact the business using her specific skill set.

Another excellent way for parents and children to coexist at a family business is to use an exercise through which parents get to understand what drives their kids. Their kids may seek to:

Gain approval from experts;

Make money;

Succeed on their own;

Gain respect from friends;

Compete and win; and

Work hard and excel.

Understanding Your Children's Money Philosophy
In addition to concerns about their children's work ethic, these same parents are worried about their children's relationship with money. The key to understanding how your children make financial decisions is to identify their beliefs and thought process about money.

There are two types of thinking: In prosperity thinking, money is for pleasure. There is a sense of abundance and optimism about money. Poverty thinking is described as a mistrustful state of mind that things won't work out. It embodies pessimism, fear and a passive relationship with money.

Whether we are a prosperity or poverty thinker is shaped by our life experiences. However, rarely do your children's experiences mirror your own. Understanding their perspective and feelings about money can explain why you may approach financial decisions differently from your children.

Getting a handle on kids' motivators can help parents accept them and stop expecting them to be just like they are. In my family business consulting experience no one benefits when differences are treated like catastrophes or parents get angry about the existence of a generational gap. Real progress can result from listening and realizing there is no right or wrong, but sometimes you must agree to disagree.

Denise P. Federer, Ph.D. is founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group. She has 27 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at: [email protected]


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