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Where will we be in 50 years? Answers for family businesses’ burning questions

David Harland /

Operating a family business has many challenges — from deciding on legacy issues to managing the complex interdependence of the family unit with the commercial world.

Tom McCullough and Keith Whitaker have recently released an excellent book and accompanying podcast The Wealth of Wisdom. In it they offer essential guidance and tools to answer the ‘top 50 questions wealthy families ask’.

It inspired my team to compile and address the ‘top three questions family businesses ask’, gathered from our 20 years working closely with many family groups. Here they are.

1. How do I hand over this business and who to?

Deciding how to hand over a family business and to whom is a critical question.

Two essential things to know are there is never a ‘right’ time and it is a long journey that takes planning and conversations.

The wisest place to begin is with conversations — ones that involve the whole family group.  As these conversations can often throw up old and unexpected challenges, smart family businesses formalise these conversations and have them facilitated.

Facilitation will mean all family members have a voice — a critical element to succession conversations. It also avoids suspicion and builds trust and security. 

For some family businesses, this facilitation can be the difference between a successful or unsuccessful transition.

Many family businesses underestimate how extensive the handing over process is, so my advice is always to start early and plan for a process, not an event. Most family businesses get stuck in the legal and estate planning elements of handing over. Remember, this process requires the business to have adequate financial returns, sufficient trust in potential successors and an already commenced family and business education process.

2. How do I teach my children financial values and avoid entitlement?

This question is often nominated by wealthy family business owners as the one that keeps them awake at night.

We all want the best for our children and the natural instinct for any parent is to give to them with generosity and love. But in doing so, history tells us there are many cases of creating an entitled, unmotivated next generation who simply lack purpose.

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, wealth is not the most important factor in children with an entitled mindset which is both encouraging and slightly alarming for smaller family businesses.

In my experience, avoiding entitlement is best managed with three steps.

  1. Encouraged your children to work outside of the family business. If they wish to join the family business, they should do so on merit only. That is, they have to be the right person for the job, not just the most available.
  2. Make sure they are contributing at a community level. Have them volunteer or take on philanthropic projects. Philanthropic projects can include the entire family group. 
  3. Leverage education by teaching them financial literacy from a young age. And, if you wish to fund something for the next generation, what better gift to give them than access to education in its many forms?

3. What will this business look like in 50 years?

This may be the hardest question of all to answer.

The technological changes that lie ahead of us over the next 50 years will be considerable. A world of autonomous cars and AI performing complex tasks, even guiding humans in delicate procedures, is right here and now.

However, the keys to business success over the long term will not fundamentally change. Especially for family businesses.

Dennis Jaffe, a US-based thought-leader in family enterprise consulting, describes successful long-term family businesses as having “created a great business first, and subsequently decided to become a great family as well. The latter accomplishment took much longer and much more collective effort than the former”.

Research shows family business that are trying to envision long-term success should focus first on their values, vision and mission. And all of that starts with fully aligned values. As Jaffe says families must “act as values-based, socially responsible entities, using their vast resources to make a positive difference in their communities”.

From that point, we see success in those family groups who then go on to cultivate and grow their human capital to ensure there is a culture of innovation and leadership.

As the world continues to embrace businesses that have more than just a commercial goal, having a clearly articulated mission will also be critical to future success.

NOW READ: What’s your role? Why family businesses need to clearly outline employee responsibilities

NOW READ: Tech Virgin: Why this founder left the family business to follow in the footsteps of his entrepreneurial idols

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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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