How to be more than “the son of…” in a family business

Being the son or daughter of the boss and stepping into the boss’s shoes in a family business is without a doubt not a simple move to make.  It’s even tougher when you constantly hear remarks like “So your father’s getting you into things, ah?  When is he coming back?”  or “When your mother returns, tell her to call me, she’ll fix this up in no time” or “Don’t worry, I've known your parents for years, they’ll handle it.”  With every statement of this kind, sometimes of a more barbed or intentional nature, you hear a between-the-lines message in your mind: your parents established the business with their own two hands, spat blood to fight and survive and develop, absorbed years of difficulty, uncertainty and shortage; they were industrious, and personally knew every employee, supplier and client.  They're the only ones able to come up with flexible creative solutions in complex circumstances, and the only ones who have absolute indisputable authority.  And (what about) you?  You're viewed with reservation.


What do you know, anyhow?

Consciously or not, the message conveyed by these remarks belittles and weakens.  It translates into “Who do you think you are?” despite being disguised as compliments towards your parents.  It’s a message that makes you believe your environment doubts you, is unsure of your ability, and wonders if you can offer any added value.  The parent is “omnipotent” so how can YOU, who grew up with life handed to you on a silver platter, fill their boat-sized shoes?  After all, you’ve joined THEIR business, and on their merit, not on your own.  How can you possibly establish an independent status?  What could you possibly add that hasn’t already been accomplished?


Step 1: It’s not you, it’s them

Your first step is to understand that there’s nothing personal in all this.  Believe me, there isn't.  These statements don’t indicate anything about you but derive from that very natural aspect which we all have: anxiety over change.  We all fear change, and prefer that things stay the way we’re familiar with, even if that’s not the greatest set-up.  We feel threatened by the unknown.  In this case, you are the change and the unknown, and your parents are the comfortably familiar.  It’s not you, it’s them and the environment which is simply wary of change, even for the better.


Step 2: Yes, I'm the “son / daughter of…”

Your next step is to get fully acquainted with the important role you’ve been delegated.  A continuing generation is such an obvious plan: how else will the family business carry on into the future?  Firstly, your parents are generally interested in having the business they founded continue once they step down.  In fact, being considered capable of maintaining the business is critical and significant of itself, and worthy of being viewed as important.  Secondly, for a business to survive into the future, it must necessarily develop and progress.  And that’s where you, the next generation, can contribute uniquely, with ideas, methods, technologies, and new directions.  Perhaps you won't be able to strut your stuff over founding the business, but you can definitely be proud of bringing it into the future, adapting it to the current changing times, introducing modernization, and being the person who does valuable things that haven’t yet been done and couldn’t be achieved without you.


Step 3: When you grow up, you'll understand

And what can you do, until that wondrous moment is reached, so that the environment stops seeing you as nothing more than a shadow of your father or mother?  Step three, and possibly the most important one, centers around your personal growth.  There’s a good reason we’re told as kids that “When you grow up, you'll understand,” because true understanding, whether about business or any other matter, first requires that each of us develops at the personal level.  This is when you learn deeply about the business, find the place that’s right for you in it, and consolidate your own beliefs concerning it.  So instead of taking action from a territorial stance, try a reset on your internal locus of control or make a change within yourself: focus on finding your personal path, be patient, be humble, learn the business from the ground up.  Observe your parent’s modes of action and approaches closely, study them, and when the day comes, you'll be able to make informed choices and decide what to keep, what to adapt, and what to discard.  Look for areas that grab your personal interest, or where you can add value, and focus on them as your contribution to the business.


A final word

Until you complete the “growing up” process, try to activate an internal filter or close the shutters against statements that seem belittling or demeaning.  Assimilate only those that are practical, learn about every aspect of the business, and be forgiving based on smart insightfulness.  In this way, you'll not only leap the hurdles, you'll also enjoy the process and grow from your activities in the family business.  Wishing you success.