Business Advice

Three tips for bridging the generation gap in family businesses

David Harland /

Family businesses are complex relational environments. Younger family members are finding their feet in their own careers while older family members carry a wealth of experience. The next generation have dreams and aspirations while the incumbent generation are concerned to protect what they have built. Multigenerational family businesses must navigate these complex relationships and expectations and still achieve long-term business success.

There is a temptation to think most of the challenges in multigenerational family businesses will revolve around the growth of wealth and discussions about money.

However, there are other very important factors that determine whether the family business will remain sustainable. Understanding the past, present and future of the family business can help bridge the gap between generations in working together in a family business.

Dr Jenny Brown, a family therapist and founder of The Family Systems Institute, describes how families in successful multigenerational family businesses can be negatively affected by disconnection with their past.

“I have met with many family enterprise groups who have been carried along by the external tide of business and investment activity without pausing to reflect on what the family stands for. All too often family members take on a generational legacy of entrepreneurship without knowing the story of how this initiative emerged,” she says.

Here are three vital principles to keep multigenerational family businesses sustainable.

Tell the family business story

Younger generations in a family business are often disconnected from the experiences that have shaped the business to this point. In these early stages of their careers, they are hungry to make a difference and pursue their dreams. Many opportunities lie before them competing with the family business for their energy and passion. Telling the family business story is a powerful way to communicate the history and share the vision that drove the pioneers to build the business that exists today.

On the other hand, families in businesses that fail to tell their story will lack engagement with the next generation losing them to more compelling market opportunities. Peter Jaskiewicz, University of Ottawa research chair in enduring entrepreneurship and experienced advisor to business families, confirms this when he says “knowing the history of the business, through stories, will encourage the next gen to be part of it”.

The first principle of creating a sustainable multigenerational family business is to anchor each succeeding generation in the story of the business. Through these stories they will gain an understanding of the history of the business, what it stands for and where it is going.

Manage the tension between togetherness and individuality

A challenge in any business is to create an environment in which every voice can be heard and contributions are weighed for effective decisions. This is even more heightened in family businesses as the relationships are personal. There is a fine balance between keeping a coherent momentum in the business without shutting out the flair and creativity of the individual.

Family meetings are a key tool for families in business to keep communication channels open and present opportunities for everyone to share their views. Brown emphasises family tensions can be reduced through a balance of good one on one contact amongst family members as well as effective family meetings.

“Tension is infectious in a social group, especially in a family group. When family members make a conscious effort to communicate in a thoughtful tone to each member of the family it enables constructive interactions.”

The second principle of creating a sustainable multigenerational family businesses is to manage the tension between togetherness and individuality. Sustainable families in business value the thoughts and contributions of each member. Decisions are made jointly and values are developed through a long term commitment to open conversations.

Give the next generation freedom to express themselves

The next generation of a family business feel stifled when they perceive the expectations of the older generation are being imposed on them. These expectations inhibit their freedom to find their own path in life. In extreme cases children have been known to walk away from family businesses and the hope of participation in family wealth because they feel their decisions are being controlled through money. Young people want to find their own sense of purpose and identity given their own talents and desires.

In my experience, families that view both the business and accumulated wealth as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves are more successful in business over the long term. It is the role of wise parents to create space for the younger generation to find their own sense of fulfilment and purpose without feeling they have to cut themselves off from the family business to do so.

The third principle of creating sustainable multigenerational family businesses is to give the next generation freedom to express themselves, creating the space for them to be creative and fulfil their own purpose in life.

Multigenerational businesses are complex relational environments. These three principles can help the different generations of families in business to be successful, harmonious and engaged as they work together.

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David Harland

David Harland is the managing director of FINH and works exclusively with multigenerational family businesses. He holds both national and international accreditation in the field of family advising and family wealth.

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