Teresa Craig knew something had to change in her business. Although she'd brought in her sons, Sebastian and Michael Grasso, 33 and 34, respectively, to help develop the company, their working relationship was so bad, it was affecting the business.
Craig had been in the field of vocational rehabilitation for more than a decade before starting Windham Injury Management Group in Windham, New Hampshire, in 1989. Sebastian joined the company immediately after graduating from college in 1990, and she trained him in sales and vocational rehab. Her older son, Michael, came on board five years later after he'd received a master's degree in ergonomics--an educational achievement Craig thought would be a useful addition to her son's engineering degree.
But the mother and sons' business relationship was a lot like their personal relationship--explosive. "We argued about everything," Craig says. "My expectations of them were very high. They felt they were unrealistically high."
After more than a year of working with her sons, Craig was so exasperated, she tried to fire them. But Sebastian and Michael refused to listen to her. "They wouldn't go away," she says. "The next day, they were back in the office."
Although the business kept growing, morale at Windham was suffering. "Things came to a head when we started losing a lot of good employees," Craig says. "When we asked them why they were leaving, they said they couldn't stand listening to and being part of the conflict we were generating. That's when we knew we had to do something. We had to get someone to help us stop the bleeding."
Patricia Schiff Estess writes family business histories and is the author oftwo books: Managing Alternative Work Arrangements (Crisp Publishing)and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage (Betterway Press).
A Call For Help
Craig and her sons appealed to the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), which provides management and professional advice to small companies. Their advisor, Gene Ronshangin, analyzed the situation and told them they had tremendous business potential that they'd squander if they didn't get back to work and begin talking to each other.
"He helped us put the business back into the business and take family out of it," Craig says. "Interestingly, once he did that, the family issues began to take care of themselves."
That scenario isn't unusual, says Fredda Herz Brown, founder of Metropolitan Group, a family business consulting firm in Leonia, New Jersey. "If there's turmoil when a kid comes into the business, it would be easy to confuse that with an emotional problem in the family. But that's not always the case," she explains.
More often, the upheaval has to do with unmet expectations on the part of both generations, says Sam Lane, founder of LBF & Associates, a family business consulting firm in Fort Worth, Texas. These expectations can include everything from how much vacation the young adult can expect to have in a year to far more complicated issues, such as what kind of mastery the person will need to exhibit before moving up the ladder to a higher position.
"Both generations may think they've talked about what's expected because they've touched on the subject in snippets of conversation," Lane says. "But that's not the same thing as sitting down, having lengthy and thoughtful discussions, coming to an agreement on expectations, and getting those expectations on paper."
Even if a parent and child do all that, however, issues may still arise after the young adult goes to work in the family business. It may be that the parent has misjudged the son or daughter's abilities and assigned the child a position that's over his or her head. On the other hand, it could be that the child was shocked and upset by the parent's authoritarian rule in the office or is angry that the parent isn't listening to his or her suggestions. Any of these situations can lead to a bad start that can damage both family and business relationships.
So what can you do to rectify a rocky start when a young adult enters the family business? First, bring the issue into perspective, Herz Brown suggests. Either the parent or the child can ask themselves, "If this weren't my child (or parent), how would I define this problem?" Is it a question of personality? Of being in the wrong position? Of not having enough experience? Of not communicating adequately? Of not having a method for resolving conflicts?
Once the problem has been identified, you can look for solutions. Maybe the child should work for another company in an allied field to gain experience, or maybe he or she should report to someone other than the parent. Maybe the parent and child can plan to meet once a week for an hour off the premises to discuss issues surrounding the business.
"Unfortunately, there's no magic [solution]," Lane says. But before tensions escalate and people become so rooted in their positions that there seems to be no possible solution, it's best to get an objective perspective. A skilled family business advisor can be helpful in sorting problems out and helping find solutions.
"For us, Gene Ronshangin was the person," says Craig. "He set the ground rules. He told the boys if they worked with him the way they worked with me, he would leave. Then, after he heard all sides, he encouraged me to get Sebastian and Michael more involved in decision-making roles because they had worked hard and proved themselves worthy of that.
"He also suggested creating a board of directors that meets quarterly. We did, and it has allowed the boys to air their ideas and goals with a group of people we all respect, and to get feedback from someone other than me. In fact, it's proved so successful, it's allowed us to go back to having dinners together and being a family again.
"All this has also helped us develop an exit strategy for me to retire," adds Craig. "My sons will assume the leadership roles in the business. And I'm delighted. They're superior young men who've been instrumental in growing this business. That's something I never thought I'd be able to say five years ago."
LBF & Associates, (817) 735-1898, firstname.lastname@example.org
Metropolitan Group, 230 Fort Lee Rd., Leonia, NJ 07605, (201) 461-7356