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A couple months ago, our column focused on generational transitions in family-owned companies. We provided some thoughts about the process. We also mentioned a letter that Rich wrote to Jen and son Joe many years ago. That letter was intended to “tee up” an ongoing conversation about the transition of our family software business. We offered a reprint of the letter to readers and had an overwhelming number of requests for the reprint. Some were from third and fourth generation ownership in the business concerned about how they will do in the captain’s chair. Some were current generation ownership wanting to do the process better than their parents did. We enjoyed hearing bits of their stories.
In any event, we decided to share the letter with our readers in case it will help in your own transition process. Some readers may not be involved in the company’s ownership, but may find some of the content applies to mentoring good employees or in helping your children in their lives.
Dear Jennifer and Joe,
As you grow older and begin to look for summer jobs and then later a career, I hope you will consider the business that your Grandparents, your Mother and I have built. There is no better or more rewarding career than in perpetuating a family business. And this is a good industry with good people and we provide good things to society. Plus, there is a connection to past generations and then to your children that is both wonderful and hard to explain.
The most important statement in this letter is this: Family comes first. I love you and want you to take whatever career path is right for you. You are more important than the business, and we must together always remember this and act accordingly. I will be disappointed if you choose another course, but I understand the worst kind of work is feeling “stuck” in a family business doing a job you dislike. My love and respect for you will be the same whatever you choose. If you decide to pursue another career, I will support you and help in any way I can, but I would also like you to consider working with us in our business. Standing shoulder to shoulder working hard with people you love is the best kind of work.
If you decide to come into the business, my commitments to you are to:
• Give you meaningful work as you apprentice in the business. This includes the worst and dirtiest jobs in the company, which in the beginning were done by both your mother and me, to allow you to understand all of the business, and to help you to realize that all jobs are important and we are not “too good” or “above” any job in the company.
• Develop and grow your skills so you can competently and confidently evolve into the management and ownership of the company.
• Listen to and value your point of view beyond where I would have given up on others; I owe you more patience because you are my child.
• Allow you to be your own person not expecting you to be clone of me.
• Invest in your training personally with my time and experience to make your introduction into the business easier than mine. I don’t want you to have to learn everything “the hard way.” I want you to stand on my shoulders as you did when you were little, to see farther than I can see, and to use your vision and insights to do more than I did.
• Be proud of your success, not jealous. To remember that we are on the same team, and to be proud of your accomplishments.
• Respond respectfully to any sincere question, no matter how dumb it may seem at the moment. I understand that things that are second nature to me may be difficult or unclear to you. I will also explain how I came to know the answer, so you not only know the answer, you can create your own answers not just repeat mine.
• Treat you with respect as a valued business associate.
• Never intentionally embarrass you or denigrate you in public or in front of other associates.
• Remember to give you fair credit for your contribution at work and express my fatherly pride in your accomplishments when we are together at home.
As in most things in life, if you decide to come into the business, there are commitments you must make:
• You must understand that we will hold you to a higher standard just as we hold ourselves to a higher standard. We must care more about our company than others
• We must work harder than others in the company. We family members set the pace and should be a positive example for others in the company. We will expect more of you than others in effort and attitude. In setting your sights, pick the best, hardest worker in whatever area you are assigned and strive to be more competent and to work harder than that person.
• When asked to do a task, you should accept it with a positive attitude and give it your best. When you belittle a task, you in effect belittle the other people who do that task. Any person doing a task for the good of the business should be respected for their contribution.
• You must treat other family members with respect. The familiarity and informality that we have between us at home is right and good and should continue at home, but not be brought to work. Family issues will stay at home. Not that they aren’t more important; work is just the wrong place to air them.
• You should never use your “family” title to embarrass or “bash” our non-family associates. It is not fair to them, and it damages your standing in the company.
• You should never embarrass or denigrate other family members in public or in front of other associates.
• You should be willing to invest in learning and developing a competence in the business. This includes a solid education as well as the serious practical experience you must attain by working in the business. If possible, you should spend a couple years working for another company. This will allow you to gain some maturity on your own and give you a sense of how other companies operate. At the end of those years away, you will be able to decide whether our company is where you want to work and to appreciate the environment we have here. You have easily learned how to live off the harvest of the business; now it is time to learn to plow, plant, cultivate and reap, all more difficult tasks. You must listen to me and others in the business with the knowledge and experience to help you.
You will have many skills and opportunities in life. I also know that choosing the family business may not be the easiest choice you can make because our commitments are difficult. But if we work hard, do it right and do it together as a team, just as my father did with me and his father did with him, you will be given one of the biggest thrills in life…Giving a letter like this to your sons or daughters.
We wish you success in your own transitions and hope that your future generations whether they are family or not bring ideas and new flavor to the company. Jen recommends that you wait until the next generation is a little older than the incredibly mature 15-year-old who received the letter from Rich and scoffed at the amount of work being requested of her. Rich would tell you that it was the perfect time (Jen did keep it all these years).