6 Tips for Closing the Generation Gap

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Q: My family-owned business struggles to get ahead. It's tough for my brother and I to convince my father and grandfather that the economy is different than it was "back in the day." I know I don't know everything, but the ignorance between generations needs to stop. How can we improve our communication?

  -- Aaron Ausen
Dalmaray, a Janesville, Wisc., pre-cast concrete products maker

A: Interactions among the generations in family-owned businesses can be particularly challenging because you have both business and family issues to address. It is often hard for the people who remember you as children and teens to understand that you are now competent to contribute to the organization.

Transferring control among generations, which is also called succession planning, needs to be structured and scheduled. Here are six tips to help you:

1. Use outside authorities to make your points. Bring articles, blogs and even experts you know and trust into the discussion to support your concerns. Your father and grandfather may be more willing to pay attention to them and it also helps you and your brother to be perceived as a resource for information.

2. Present written proposals. Often, verbal discussions can lead to arguing and the point you wanted to make may be lost. By putting together a short written proposal on one idea, supported by facts, you make it harder to ignore your concerns. You also give your father and grandfather time to really consider what you have to say.

3. Negotiate for partial control. Are there product lines, branches of the business, or areas of responsibility where you and your brother think you can make a real difference? Ask for full authority over those areas. If you demonstrate that you can make a substantial positive difference with them, your father and grandfather are likely to pay more attention to your suggestions for other areas of the business.

4. Do your homework on family business interactions. Many family businesses fall apart during the transition from one generation to the next. Support your arguments with facts and true stories of the risks -- and what can be done to reduce them.

5. Enlist the support of other family members. Are there any other members of the family -- particularly in their generations -- that agree with you? Do some of these people have a vested interest in the success of the business? Ask them to contribute their insights to the discussion. That way, it's not just you and your brother against your father and grandfather.

6. Focus on the elephant in the room. The real bottom line in this situation is the transfer of power. You and your brother are ready to step up and make a difference in your family's business but your father and grandfather aren't ready to let go of the reins. Unfortunately with the changes in the marketplace, the old assumption that the most senior people have the most knowledge doesn't hold anymore. You know this, but they don't.

By the time they are willing to transfer power, you may not have as strong a business as you do now. You and your brother need to talk to your father and grandfather about how and when the power shift will happen, with a realistic schedule. You may want to hold off this discussion until you have proven yourselves using some of the tactics suggested above.

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