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Fathers & Sons in Friction?

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Think of the joy that could come from talking about business to a son. So why is it often a total nightmare? 'Father and son' turns into 'Sleepless and son.' With so much at stake, I can’t help but think of the complexity of father and son relationships – especially when it comes to working together.

I’ve worked with many father and son businesses. In the best scenarios, fathers and sons are on the same team and working together toward the same goal. Their combined drive increases success exponentially. Oddly, I've coached CEOs who love hiring their fathers as employees of their successful companies. It takes an amazing father and son to pull off that reversed role relationship. One father employed his son as a youth, then later went to work for his son at the company his son founded. Years into this working relationship, the father has told me how proud he is of the son he calls "boss."

However, many fathers and sons find working together is ripe for dysfunction. If you are in business with your son or your father, you are probably keenly aware of the difficulties. You may be trying to sort out what has become a strained relationship. But there are remedies. The father son angst is often rooted in familyship and employeeship confusion. With clarity, you may be able to communicate better and understand your roles as fellow workers.

Rules of Succession

One CEO asked me to help him find a successor. He directed me to ask his son, but it was obvious that was not his first choice. His son was thriving, running a division of the company. I approached the son to see if he wanted to eventually take the reins of the company. The son's reply to my question was "Heck, no! Why would I want to take on dad's headaches? And besides, I haven't had a real conversation with dad since I was 14." The outlook was grim. But within months, things changed and the two began having real communication. The son decided to take over the company, and with some Wilder Coach grooming he has become the amazing leader of an even more successful company.

Not every son wants to follow in his father's footsteps. Both my father and my father-in-law asked me to work in their companies, and I turned them down. But then, I was always an independent cuss. In high school I ran for Student Council President (of course) and my campaign manager ordered some campaign badges that had no flare or excitement. My father, a commercial artist who had designed many political campaigns, asked me why I didn't ask him for an impressive design. I replied, I wanted to do it my way (Frank Sinatra style). So I did it my way, and I lost the election.

I've had many coaching conversations with CEOS at their wit’s end, attempting to convince their sons to behave and take responsibility for their companies. I coached one son that seemed to be set up for success, as a rising star in his father's company. However, he came to me exasperated

that his dad wouldn't even consider the merits of adding a digital feature to their business. Each situation was unique but shared a similar root problem: rulebook confusion.

The Problem with Familyship Rules

For years father and son followed the rules of familyship. That rulebook is for family relationships. These are the rules set up early in the family when the father was in command of the child and obedience was required for a smooth operation of the family. “Because I said so” was a command that worked most of the time in the family.

In a business, “because I said so” does not work well. A manager's "because I said so" often leads to unhappy employees. Unhappy employees are less engaged; therefore, less productive, and because of this, less profitable. I’ve seen businesses lose momentum, stuck in the mire of familyship rule confusion.

Following the wrong rulebook is like trying to play football while following the rules for baseball. It would lead to all kinds of confusion and frustrate both teams. “Pitching” a baseball in the middle of a football game doesn’t make sense. When you are on the football field, you play football. When you work together, you follow the employeeship rulebook.

When there is rulebook confusion, one party is often disrespected. It may be the son or the father – whoever is following the wrong rulebook. Instead of focusing on the game and making the business profitable, the focus changes to my business, my rulebook, my ego.

Breaking All the Rules

Tensions rise, tempers flare, and both familyship and employeeship rules go out the window. Some fathers have difficulty letting go, knowing all the sacrifices that went into years of creating the business. Some sons have a hard time being held accountable, making choices without considering the consequences. Either party may have so little respect that the entire relationship is sabotaged. Have you ever seen a work disagreement at the Thanksgiving dinner table? It can be worse than an overcooked turkey.

There are seasons of harmony and of discord. I can think of family conversations, times when things like responsibility, respect, money, and aspirations weighed heavily on us. My own sons chose different career paths from mine. I've had to "allow" them to choose their own paths without judgment or steering them into a life to fit my purposes. In the end, their happiness is more important than me finding a family successor.

When it comes to work and succession, so much is at stake for fathers and sons.

The familyship rules look different at age 5 verses 15. Rules change as rebellion increases. The father son dynamic grows in complexity - and often dysfunction - over time.

Exchanging Rules for Principles

To start to remedy the situation, put down the familyship rulebook. Pick up these leadership principles. Adopt a different perspective. It helps when both parties recognize how difficult it is to step out of these intrinsic roles.

3 Leadership Principles for Work (and for Family):

1. Step forward and share the company vision with your son/father, and how each fits into that vision.

2. Step back and macro-manage the work being done by the son/father, not micro-manage. Focus on results, not process.

3. Set up a culture of happiness by celebrating your son’s/father’s wins and building his self-esteem.

The guideline is to decide what you want the business to look like, and develop a mission that gets father and son to buy in. Work hard not to micro-manage each other. Cultivate a positive outlook.

Son, let go of the judging your father. Father, let go of the judging your son.

Commend each other for learning new principles – which can feel unnatural and takes months of practice. And when you get the hang of it. Celebrate the wins. You’re on the same team. Go forth and conquer!

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