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Emerging stronger as a successor: Successor value to the family enterprise

Do you know what your value to the family company as a successor is? If you are considering joining, do you know under what conditions your value might be at its maximum? Are these questions important?

Do you know what your value to the family company as a successor is? If you are considering joining, do you know under what conditions your value might be at its maximum? Are these questions important?

At a gathering of owners, I heard the late Fergal Quinn—founder and owner of Superquinn—speak about family business. He covered the usual topics of growth, values, and the need for agreement within the family if the family (read the business) are going to get anywhere. During this talk he introduced a novel idea for those family members considering joining the family company. His advice? That a successor looking to join at any stage should bring 'value' back to the company. That stuck with me; I had never heard anyone speak in this way on family employment before.  

His number one principle for the type and timing of successor employment was that value counts. That which you alone have of worth which is both unique to you and desired by someone—or something—else. If you as a successor do not have at least an inkling or sense of your own value, think again. Without this awareness you will find it difficult to assess the most opportune time to contribute. You might call this a 'command' of your value, the absence of which will allow someone else (possibly a relative) to do it for you.

A framework or method to help you identify elements of 'value' as a successor is both instructive and helpful. Helpful as you discuss your intentions with interested parties (the company, family members, career coaches et al.) and instructive in shaping your understanding of both your families' business and your relationship with it.  

This 'value' framework involves careful consideration of three areas:

Value check 1: Assess if you have an aptitude for business and for the business your family is in. 

Do you baulk when business is presented or discussed? Are you interested in the buying and selling, the collective urge for a given goal or the assessment of financial and commercial detail? Does your temperament call to the commercial or to the essence of the enterprise you own? Do you have the aptitude for your families’ business?

Aptitude is your natural ability to do something well, a fitness for a role, natural propensity or talent for a particular skill or skills some (or all) of which may be essential for success in your chosen career (role and field). When these overlap with those required to excel at a career in your family business, the better for you. Possibly essential if you are to consider and commit to life-long involvement in your family business. Best test if you have some aptitude for it first.   

A well-tried method to discover career calling and 'aptitude' is to work ‘outside’ of the family company away from critical eyes. For insight into how other industries, businesses and companies operate and to provide opportunity to work with colleagues who know you for your first name, not your last one. Essential for the unvarnished feedback we all need to succeed.

The next check follows. Do the family—and the family business—want you?

Value check 2: Identify the family conditions for successor involvement and those abilities needed to succeed.

First, understand what polices (if any) are in place governing the involvement of family members as managers, governors (board members), entrepreneurs or those supporting family governance. Look for conditions to cover eligibility—possible roles, career stage, branch quotas, other stipulations such as qualifications and languages. It is a good start if these policies are in place.

However, many families can demonstrate a lack of decision on possible role(s) and on the requirements of entry for family members. A wait-and-see approach is preferred, possibly underpinned by poor experience. Messages can be mixed as to the conditions under which successors may join and what families look for when they do. If the family does not have clarity on the value successors bring, tread carefully.

To assess abilities required to work in your family business, understand the profile of non-family managers alongside whom you will be working. Management may be ‘home-grown’ with a minimum of outside joiners (with the possible exception those working in ‘specialist’ functions such as finance). In this case, evaluation of the origins and capacities of non-family managers is straightforward.

In a larger business with a higher percentage of non-family managers, assessment of career paths, qualifications and levels of responsibility will be more complex. Try to understand the profiles of the companies or roles from where new managers are joining, the extent of their ‘outside’ experience and the required qualifications. With this insight you will achieve an overview of the relative calibre of managers and the requisite skills and abilities valued by the business you are about to join.

Value check 3: Actively manage your career stage with the leadership requirements of the family business.

Surveys of families-in-business show divergence of opinion as to the suitable time for next generation successors to join. In one example of those who voiced an opinion on age, 35% indicated the ideal as being between 26 and 35 once the successor has acquired suitable experience. A sizeable minority (35%) indicated that timing depends on the individual, with the balancing 30% indicating a broad range in suitable age and stage. Not much to go on as you consider the decision on the ‘right’ time to join, apart from the evidence that there is little (if any) consensus on when that may be. Over to you.

Well-managed careers pass through several stages, any one of which may be a suitable point at which to bring 'value' back to the family business. These ‘natural junctures’ (direct from school, upon graduation from university, as a middle-manager, as an established manager, as an executive or non-executive director) all provide opportunity to join and contribute.

Timing can be driven by necessity—sometimes sadly because of the premature death of a family member—in which case the decision will be made for you.

As the business grows and the variety and abilities of non-family managers increase, your relative value to the business will alter. As a general principle, the larger the scale and scope your family company the later you should consider joining (and the more ‘external’ experience you will garner along the way).

Where is your company on this development path? At the outset evaluate your families’ attitude to growth. The family may be content with the status quo, preferring to harvest the company for lifestyle purposes. However, if the intent is to grow, entrepreneurial management will be both needed and valued. A good time to join.

With growth comes the need for new ideas, more qualified people, and additional skills.  New managers and qualified professionals bring ideas and processes from outside the company. Ideas follow people. With this change in scope—the ‘professionalisation of management’—comes possibility. Time to match with your career stage and aims and to decide on how you can bring value to the business.

Also, it is worth exploring those roles and possibilities which follow from ownership. Family governance roles, possibilities for social entrepreneurship, philanthropy, or governance of the company all present possibilities to provide value. Such possibilities to contribute will open and multiply as the family (and company) grow. 

Successor value

To ‘command’ your value work through each of the three steps either on your own or (ideally) with an individual (mentor, trusted professional) who is independent with your best interests foremost.

First, take time to understand your aptitude for business and the business your family is in. Second, clarify all ownership conditions as to family involvement and understand the broad company requirements (experience, qualifications, and ‘professional’ merit) of the managers it employs. Look to the non-family managers for example. Finally—and this is the tricky one—match your career stage and goals with the leadership requirements and possibilities within the family enterprise.

Get these almost right and you will thrive. Get this mostly wrong and you will be locked into a role for which you are unsuited in an organisation which does not value why you are there.

Philip Mackeown, family business leader turned business leadership and career coach, will chair the 18th Campden Wealth European Families in Business Forum, held in-person in Berlin, Germany on 1-2 December 2021.


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