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Dealing With the “Generation Gap” at a Family Business

“Why don’t my kids have the same values I do?”

“What can I do to make them think like me?”

As a family business advisor, these are two questions parents running family businesses who are frustrated with their kids’ attitudes toward work often ask me.Bridging the Generation Gap

The most simplistic answer I can give is that it’s better to understand where “kids” are coming from rather than judge them because they think differently than their parents do. Of course, that is easier said that done.

Parents must take some responsibility for the attitudes their kids have developed about work, since they have served as role models. For instance, is it any surprise that kids may seem less committed to businesses than their parents may like due to growing up in a household of workaholics? Is it wrong for kids to seek a more balanced life?

Parents must curb their tendency to judge first and listen second (if at all). It’s also valuable to try to eliminate any disconnect, but that process needs to start early:

  • Open a dialog about work with your kids
  • Ask them questions about what they want
  • Let go of things you can’t change
  • Don’t operate from fear (What are you afraid of?)

It’s also important that kids have realistic expectations about the work world, so it’s a good idea to have them work somewhere else first to learn some invaluable “life lessons.” In addition, as a family business advisor, I coach parents to accept their kids for who they are and celebrate what they are good at, even if it’s different from their own skills.

One of my family business consulting clients was good with numbers, while his daughter/employee was good with people. The dad really rode her about what he considered to be a deficiency until he came to the realization that it was far healthier (and better for the business) if he accepted their differences and put her in a position to positively affect the business using her specific skill set.

Another excellent way for parents and children to coexist at a family business is to conduct an exercise through which parents get to understand what drives their kids—because it may be different from what drives them. Their kids may seek to:

  • Gain approval from experts
  • Make money
  • Succeed on their own
  • Gain respect from friends
  • Compete and win
  • Work hard and excel
  • Gain recognition from peers and within the industry

Getting a handle on kids’ motivators can help parents accept them and stop expecting them to be just like they are. In my family business consulting experience, no one benefits when differences are treated like catastrophes or parents get angry about the existence of a generational gap; real progress can result from listening and realizing there is no right or wrong, but sometimes you must agree to disagree.

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