Let’s illustrate with a brief success story, a composite of many cases we’ve seen over the years. A healthy 67-year-old dealer-owner found himself in the middle of chronic conflict between his two sons. He had worked side-by-side with both of them to expand the business for many years, with the stated assumption that “they” would eventually take over.
His younger son became the more entrepreneurial of the two. He was more aggressive in making deals and expanding the business into new areas, but he was also bull-headed at times, speaking in a nasty way to employees at times, and threatening the stability of his marriage, which had produced two kids. His older son was more soft-spoken, but also very smart. His marriage was stronger, but his wife had grown very negative about the younger brother, and would no longer go to his house on holidays.
The older brother was not a CEO type, and was less inclined to long hours and work on the weekends. The relationship between the brothers had always been tense, even from an early age, but for the most part the brothers had been friends. They used to fish together and there were a lot of laughs over the years.
In recent years, as the younger brother’s marriage became strained and the business was expanding, the tension took over. Last winter, the brothers got into a shouting match in the sales office that was overheard by many people. Since then complaints to the father from both brothers have increased in frequency and intensity. The younger brother has begun saying he can’t work with his older brother any longer.
Some in the family said the father should corral his younger son. Others said he had a point and should be recognized for the higher level of contribution he was making to the bottom line. Battle lines were being drawn.
After some soul searching the father decided to reach out to a professional family business consultant who had expertise in the area of high stakes relationship challenges. Through these conversations, the father realized that he had played a role in the problem. He didn’t like conflict, so he had started to avoid his younger son over the past 5 years. When they did talk, he was protective of his older son and would repeatedly defend him. He realized he was using too much avoidance of the situation, hoping for years now that it would blow over. He realized that his own passivity might have been contributing to the problem. He resolved to manage himself differently. He moved toward his younger son, making a point of reaching out to him even when he was angry and asking him for his viewpoint, and not reacting to his anger with distance. He confesses to his son that he had been passive in dealing with these issues for some time. His younger son actually appreciated this, saying he had noticed that his father had grown distant from him.
At the same time, the father became more expressive of his viewpoint. He took a strong stand by defining a basic principle, that he would not support an angry take-over of the business by his younger son. He stated that he was prepared to sell the business to a non-family buyer, likely at a reduced value, rather than allow succession to occur if the current situation persisted. He challenged his younger son to grow as a leader. Finally, he told the younger son that he believed he owed his brother an apology. “I can’t and I won’t take responsibility for the quality of your relationships with other family members,” he said, “but I will factor emotionally mature leadership into my decisions about how to transfer the business over time.”
At the same time, the father expressed his viewpoint to his older son more fully, as well. Along with his opposition to an angry take-over, he stated that though he didn’t condone in his younger son’s angry outbursts, he did believe he had a legitimate business beef. He told his older son that he viewed his younger son as the natural future CEO of the business, and asked his older son to work toward working successfully for his brother, or finding a reasonable path out of the business. He hired an outside firm to assess the pay level of his two sons, and made a commitment to be consistent based on industry standards.
Both brothers were upset, but appreciative of these moves by their father. The father made more effort to listen to others, avoid defending his positions, summon patience and the courage to stick with his convictions over the following year.
The outcome was good. The explosive quality to the relationship settled down. While the relationship remained distant, there were more productive conversations about a path forward between the brothers. Eventually, the younger brother presented a package for buying the business, which included a financing plan that was eventually accepted by both the father and the older brother. Following the sale, the brothers were not the best of friends, but they attended family functions together, and their children are friends. The founder father wishes both sons could have remained in the business, but accepts that life is full of imperfections.
He believes that by learning to manage himself differently, he acted as a family business leader, and the outcome, though not perfect, could have been much worse.