The Parent Trap
How to avoid trapping your kids in the family business
By Hannah Massen
We’ll start by saying the first thing your kids want you to know: it’s not you, it’s them.
As an entrepreneur, you’ve poured your heart, soul and years of your life into growing and sustaining your business. Yes, you’ve had many long days and a few hard months, but you’re passionate about what you do. Why else would you painstakingly label your products by hand or roast every small batch of coffee yourself? Your goal is to build something that lasts – something that becomes part of your family’s legacy. So, who better to entrust your “baby” to someday than your own kids?
Whether they grew up playing with toys in the back room, spent high school summers working the register or took a full-time position post-grad while they were trying to get on their feet, your kids have probably been involved with the business in some way. If nothing else, they’re familiar with the ins and outs of your operations from hearing about them at dinner every night. You might already consider your kids as part of your team and can’t imagine giving them a better gift than the crowning jewel of your career.
But they might not see it that way.
For your kids, taking ownership of the family business might be more of a burden than a pleasure. The freedom that a family business allows is overshadowed by a lack of formal processes and clear structure. Having their name on the door is not worth being “on call” 24/7 and never being able to take a vacation without their coworkers firing off texts in the group chat. Maybe they’ve always dreamed of pursuing a career in graphic design, but your manufacturing company doesn’t allow much room for artistic pursuits.
The last thing your kids want is to let you down. But by fulfilling your dream, they might be risking theirs. Here’s how not to trap your kids in the family business.
Talk about it often – and actually listen
Remember that one conversation you had with your daughter three years ago about her potentially taking over the family business someday? Well, what she said at age 18 might be wildly different than what she’d say now at age 21. You should never just assume that your kids will want to take the reins, just like you shouldn’t rely on their outdated answers. As a parent, you know that your kids have changed greatly as they’ve transitioned from children, to teens, to young adults, so why would their interest in owning your business stay the same?
People – young people, in particular – tend to change their minds. That’s why you should check in with your kids every year to learn more about their goals and career aspirations. Don’t try to pressure them into giving answers you’d want to hear; instead, listen with an open mind.
Allow them to gain outside experience
If you love something, set it free. And if it comes back to you, it will have a new depth of knowledge that can greatly benefit your business.
Maybe your son knows that you’re not ready to retire and wants to take a different job in the meantime. Or maybe he’s been working at your business for a year or two but wants to explore working at a different company. Whatever the case, give him the freedom to go out on his own. It’ll be better for your personal relationship, and if he does return, he’ll have more experience he can put to work for you.
Don’t mix work and family time
One of the main reasons why kids feel trapped in the family business is because their work follows them home – literally. You don’t want them to reach a point where they dread seeing a text from you on Saturday morning, thinking that it’s work related. While it’s natural to want to bring up work as a shared topic of interest, do your best to find other things to talk about in your free time, and respect your children’s boundaries when they’re off the clock.
Work with an HR representative or family business counselor
Working for the family business comes with a lot of negative stereotypes. Your kids might be told that they’re “freeloading” or “directionless” if they continue working for their parents. While that’s not true, you don’t want them to think that they’re backpedaling or have reached a professional plateau. Not only should you help your kids find professional development opportunities, but working with an HR representative or professional family business counselor can ensure that your kids have the right skills for the roles they’ve been given.