When the Successors Don’t Take Charge

In the late 1990s, Fred Lackland, the founder of Lackland Self Storage of Middlesex,New Jersey, began to focus most of his time on construction of new properties. Fred hadn’t realized that he wasn’t really being clear with them about how much he did or did not want to do anymore.

Fred, who was in his late 60s, continued as the titular head of the business. His older son, Mike, negotiated deals for new locations and oversaw the company’s finances. The younger son, Bruce, managed day-to-day operations at their many locations. Fred’s son-in-law, Alex, handled several tasks, including marketing, auctions and training. The family held meetings around Fred’s messy desk. When Fred was away in Florida, as he often was, Mike, Bruce and Alex would put major decisions on hold.

You might assume that little progress was made in Fred’s absence because the patriarch was reluctant to let go and resisted delegating duties to the next generation. Not so. In the Lackland family, as in many other family businesses, Mike, Bruce and Alex were more reluctant to change Fred’s role than Fred was.

The problem was not that the younger generation lacked intelligence, experience or dedication.  In fact, the opposite was true. Mike, Bruce, and Alex believed in their company. They worked long hours. They simply respected Fred, enjoyed working with him, and didn’t want to “rush the change process.” Each had separately decided that they would follow Fred’s lead, and Fred hadn’t realized that he wasn’t really being clear with them about how much he did or did not want to do anymore.

By 2002, Mike was becoming dissatisfied with his job, and we didn’t know why. He could list things that were aggravating him, but what ambitious person in a position of responsibility doesn’t have such a list? He brought me in as a consultant to get an outside viewpoint, and I couldn’t help noticing that Mike was very reluctant to say that any of his frustrations stemmed from Fred. Clearly, Mike loved, admired, and respected his father to such an extent that he didn’t want to even consider the possibility of changing Fred’s role.

When I pointed out that if the company wanted to continue to grow, they needed a full time president. The second generation would need a respectful way to talk with Fred about his role, availability, preferences and plans. The irony of the situation was that Mike already had the title of “president.”

In many ways it’s easier for the younger generation to determine a course of action when the senior-generation leader isn’t respected, suddenly becomes ill, or wants to retire or try something else, but more often, the need to make a change sneaks up on everyone slowly over time. Frustrations build beneath the surface within the successor generation until previously happy people no longer enjoy what they are doing. The senior-generation leader usually doesn’t grasp the connection between the next generation’s frustrations and his or her own behavior and indecision.  It’s difficult to drive the growth of a business with “start/stop leadership.” The more the successor generation loves, respects, and admires the older generation, the more difficult it is for everyone involved to perceive the main source of reduced job satisfaction.

What can a family do if the successor generation seems reluctant to take the lead and encourage the senior generation to step back?

Senior generation:

1.  Pre-set regular dates (every few years) for discussion of each person’s preferred career direction. If you wait to talk about future roles until the next generation shows signs of job dissatisfaction, the underlying causes of frustration will get lost in defensive communication.

2. Observe your children’s behavior. Pause if their job frustrations seem to concern “problems going unaddressed,” “decisions not being made in a timely manner” or a sense that “whatever they do won’t make any difference.” Ask yourself if:

  • your children have been holding back in deference to you and just need your reassurance that they have the authority and capability to make decisions.
  • you should admit to yourself and your children that you have been inadvertently making decisions about issues you used to handle but want them to address now.

3. Observe your own behavior. When you’re away from the office, are you delaying discussion of important matters until your return? Meet with your children to figure out which decisions still require your input and which can be made without you.

4. Thank your children for respecting you. Let them know that the best way to show continued respect for you and the business is to learn how to make decisions and step up to the plate while you are still around as a safety net.

5. Take longer vacations. This will give your children a chance to handle big decisions, get past sibling rivalries, make some mistakes and fix problems on their own while still having you as a safety net.

6. Encourage employees to pose their questions to your children instead of you. Make symbolic changes that reinforce those instructions such as moving your office, changing name plates, not attending all management team meetings, and resisting the urge to chair the ones you do attend.

7. If you can bring yourself to do it, announce a target date for your retirement to help the successor generation get used to the idea and prepare.


Successor generation:

1. If you are experiencing conflict with a sibling, it’s possible that part of the frustration you’re feeling may stem from your sense of powerlessness. If so, ask yourself if:

  • your parent is refusing to address an issue that is clearly within his or her role.
  • you simply disagree with decisions made by your parent(s).
  • you actually have been given the authority to address the issue but have regressed to blaming your parent(s).

If you don’t recognize the answer this question, have a conversation with your parents before initiating a discussion with your sibling. They may reassure you that you are now the one who’s in a position to effect change.

2. Recognize that expecting your parent(s) to sustain a heavy workload forever does not express respect for what the senior generation has accomplished.

3. Establish a schedule for you and your parents to discuss mission/vision, priorities, philosophies and decision-making criteria, but try to resist the urge to ask them to decide, vote or tell you what they would do regarding a current situation.

4. Observe your parents’ behavior. The need for longer and more frequent vacations and the tendency to procrastinate are symptoms of a need to step back. If they seem reluctant to let go, remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean they want to continue or don’t trust you. They may view you as the one who has been reluctant. Ask what they need to feel comfortable.

5. Don’t cancel management team meetings when your parent(s) cannot attend.

6. Consider joining TEC (The Executive Committee), YPO (Young Presidents Organization), or another similar group to learn how other company presidents think and talk. This may help you see how and when you hold back.

7. Keep the senior generation informed so they don’t inadvertently contradict your decisions.

8. Resist the temptation to think that your parents work “for free,” and you will be spending more money if your hire someone to do the tasks that they previously performed. There are also costs involved in the lost efficiency, delays and indecision that occur when the senior generation steps back, procrastinates or vacations more. In addition, you aren’t as effective in your role when you have to cover for your parents.

It’s admirable for successors to respect and value their parents, but leaving the family business in “leadership limbo” is not the best way to demonstrate that respect.  When you base the discussion on respect for a founder and the business, the steps and pacing of delegated authority can be more easily negotiated between the generations.


Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP has earned the right to be called The Growth Strategist®. She has won over two dozen national and statewide “entrepreneur of the year” awards for the resilient growth of her international businesses across four recessions.  Her midsized B-to-B service, technology and distribution clients get on and then stay on the published lists of the fastest growing privately held companies. All of her own service businesses (strategic planning, executive advisory, growth financing, radio show, speaking, search, etc.) help midsized companies in Achieving Accelerated Growth With Sustained Profitability®. Ambler is in her 7th year hosting a weekly peer-to-peer-to-peer online radio program at www.GrowthStrategistRadioShow.com that features interviews with CEOs/Presidents of midsized companies (typically between $20 and 200 Mil/yr) sharing success tips about the growth strategy-of-the-week. She can be reached toll free at 1-888-Aldonna or at Aldonna@AMBLER.com.

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