Parenting Adult Children

CEO or Dad/Mom...
Business Partners or Grown-up Kids...?

As a parent, parenting adult children is really tough to do, under the best of circumstances – and when you are trying to parent adult children who are in business with you, it can really stretch the bonds that bind the family together.

"As internationally recognized experts in family business succession management, we know one of the major obstacles in training the next generation for leadership in the family business is 'role confusion' – and therein lays the key for gaining a better understanding of the critical importance of 'boundaries' in knowing how to successfully parent adult children," notes leading family business expert Don Schwerzler.

One family business client summed it up pretty well. He exclaimed, “Nothing could be closer to ‘heaven on earth’ when you have your kids in business with you and everything is going well – and nothing is closer to ‘hell on earth’ when you have your kids in the family business and things are going badly!”

Schwerzler has been studying and advising family business entrepreneurs for more than 40 years and he is the founder of the Atlanta-based Family Business Institute.

In a family business, each family member is perceived in different roles. For instance, when the owner of the business is talking to his kids – is he talking in his role as the “boss” or as “dad”? When the kids are asking for guidance, are they asking help from the “CEO” or are they seeking help from “mom”.

When three vice-presidents in a family business are in a discussion – are they talking in their role as professionals/partners in a family business management team or is it a discussion amongst siblings? The reality is that in a family business, these roles are never static, always fluid. A conversation that starts in one role can instantly morph into another role.

When it comes to parenting adult children, one of our family business experts is Jane Adams, Ph.D. Dr. Adams is a social psychologist, author of many bestselling books and a sought after speaker. She has appeared on many of the top TV news and talk shows, including the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Dr Adams has studied and written about parenting adult children- both in and out of the family business. Some of her observations:

Parenting is a role it’s tough to relinquish, no matter how old your kids are. Parenting adult children who are actively involved in your family business doubles your role – head of the company as well as family leader, your kids’ boss as well as a loving parent.

When It Works

Sometimes parenting adult kids who've followed in your business footsteps is an unalloyed joy – watching them grow and develop, take on responsibility, learn to be leaders, and take the business to new levels of success and profitability. Your chest swells with parental pride and your staff, board, employees or investors are satisfied and happy, too. With a competent, capable designated successor in place, you're even starting to think about retiring.

…And When It Doesn't

At other times, parenting adult children in the family business is not that smooth or successful. Like all kids, your adult children may fail to live up to your expectations, at least some of the time. They may not share your vision, your energy, your standards or your smarts. They may annoy other stakeholders in the business who thinks they're taking unfair advantage of their special relationship with you.

(Another complaint I often hear from business owners who are parents of adult children is that their kids don't have the same entrepreneurial spark they had. I remind them that theirs is a more mature business now, not a start-up any more, and if their kids did have that kind of “get up and go,” they would start a company of their own!)

Expecting them to share your enthusiasm, perseverance, and entrepreneurial pride in what you founded and built into a success can set you up for disappointment, especially if they turn their back on it in favor of another career.

When parenting adult children who choose a life outside the family business, it’s important to remember that they are individuals with their own interests and goals, that they have an adult’s right to make their own choices as well as their own mistakes. They have those same rights inside the family business, but if they exercise the wrong ones, it may adversely affect your business or your bottom line. And when they do, you'll have to respond as the head of the company, not the family.

When Decision Day Arrives

As the parent of an adult child who chooses to join your business, at some point you will have to decide if it worked out the way you both hoped it would and if writing him or her into your succession plan is the right thing to do – as an owner, not just a parent. Before you ratify your decision, take a clear-eyed look at their performance up to this point.

Start inside the company – ask for candid feedback from their direct reports, other managers, trusted staff or long-time employees. Read their performance reviews. Make it clear you're asking as the CEO, not the parent-in-charge.

Then, because you need a completely objective assessment that’s uncolored by subordinates’ tendency to tell the boss what he wants to hear or your own subjective opinion, ask a professional family business consultant or outside management expert to evaluate how they're doing. Be up front with your adult children about this evaluation – that you're acting as the CEO, not the parent.

Having their knowledge, skills, experience, attitude and performance evaluated by someone outside both the family and the business will help you decide if your adult children are ready to take on more responsibility, or even the business itself. Because the boundaries between “family” and “business” are so thin when two or more generations have a stake in both, clarifying which decisions you make from the heart and which from the head has implications in both

When Their Choices Are Different From Yours

“You build a business, you expect your kids to follow you into it… otherwise, why did you work so hard all these years?” His voice trailed off. “It’s not just about the money,” he added.

Like many other company founders or second generation owners who are parenting adult children, Mr. M. was unhappy that neither of his sons wanted to work in the family business. One was pursuing a long-time dream of being a pilot, the other wanted a career in music.

It’s hard to convince a strong-willed, successful CEO like Mr. M. that parenting adult children means letting them make their own choices, especially when it comes to a family business. “It feels like a personal attack on me – a repudiation,” he commented.

What parents of adult children like Mr. M. don't necessarily know is what emotional meaning, if any, the family business has to their kids. They may not identify with it as anything more than a source of family income – it’s not their baby, even if it sometimes seems like their sibling. They may see it as a rival for parental attention, now or in the past. They often view it as an expression of someone else’s vision, not their own. It may require different skills and talents than they have, or want to acquire. It may be your blood, sweat and tears, but that doesn't mean they feel the same way about it; it might not be a business or profession that personally compels their interest – at least, not as much as something else does.

Parenting adult children who want to join the family business has its own set of challenges – it’s two roles, not one, and the boundary between them isn't always very clear. But for company founders, parenting adult children who don't want to follow in their footsteps has even bigger ones – accepting that they're grown-ups who have a right to their own lives and respecting and supporting their choices.

Don't wait until the time comes when clashing dreams lead to slamming doors before you know the answers to these questions:

  • Are any or all of them interested in working in the business?
  • Is there any particular job in your company they think they'd be good at, and can they tell you what value or interest they'd bring to it?
  • Where in the business do they expect to start? Where would you put them?
  • What do you think their relevant skills and talents are?
  • Have they demonstrated those or other qualities you want in your employees in other jobs, if they haven’t worked for you before now?
  • How will you handle it if they don't work out as you hope?
  • Finally, don't expect their first decision about joining the company to be their final one. They may be on the fence, or want to pursue another job or career or experience first. If so, encourage them to go for it; they may learn valuable lessons about working for a living by doing it for someone else. In fact, the strategy most family business experts agree upon is to encourage the children of the family business owner to work outside of the family business for 3-5 years, prior to joining the family business.

Footnote: After trying and failing to make it as a musician, Mr. M’s son asked his father for another chance to work in his company. And Mr. M. didn't say “I told you so” to anyone except his wife.

Family business parents, concerned about parenting adult children, can get help from our family business experts. If you are having a problem in your family business regarding parenting adult children and would like to pose a question to a question to one of our our team of family business experts, simply use the the ASK THE EXPERT form and we will provide a quick response.


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