SOLUTION: Listen to each other
Wed Feb 14, 2007 01:59

Listen to each other
Every generation has something to add to the business

Family Business
James Lea is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a nationally known family business speaker, author, and advisor. You can send comments or questions to him at .

"I owe everything to my father," Woodrow said as he reached across the table for the artificial sweetener. He and his son Bert were sitting with me in a booth at the Carolina Moon Café as a light snow fell outside. "In fact, I wouldn't be as successful as I am today without the things I learned from Dad." He glanced at Bert. "I want my own son to say the same thing one day."

Bert had joined Woodrow in the family lumber business two years before. Their early working relationship had been full of enthusiasm and mutual support. But in the past six months, it had started to sour. The three of us had to figure out what had gone wrong and how to get things back on track.

"Maybe I will," Bert said without looking up. "But I need to learn things for myself. How can I run the company someday if all I know is what I learn from you and what you learned from your father? Shouldn't there be some new ideas in there somewhere?"

Now I saw the problem. "Continuity," I said, "is what holds some family owned companies together and gives them a purpose beyond profits. How important is continuity to you?"

Woodrow jumped in. "Very important. The company has to carry on the values and business practices that people expect. I learned that from my dad, and I'm trying to teach it to Bert."

"OK," said Bert, "that's one thing you want me to learn. What else?"

"Well, I want you to learn that you should never stop trying to improve the business operations. The day before he retired your grandfather told me we'd have to hinge the gate on the other side because customers' trucks were bigger than they used to be."

"Do you want me to learn about point of sale inventory management, too? Or video security? We lost a lot to shoplifting last year."

"We don't know it was shoplifting," Woodrow muttered. "But anyway, my father also taught me to work just as hard as I want my employees to work, no more and no less."

"I agree," I said. "Your best employees are going to follow your example."

"Yeah," Bert nodded, "that makes sense. But don't I need to learn about co-op purchasing to get lower prices from suppliers? Our trade association has scheduled a seminar in April."

"If you think you can afford to take time off, you should go," Woodrow said. "Dad and I got along OK without those seminars. But since you brought up money, I learned from Dad that if times get tight, we always have to pay the employees first, the bills next and ourselves last."

"I know, I know," Bert said. "You've told me several times. But you haven't told me anything about adding a line of sustainable building materials for those customers that would rather use them."

"And another thing I learned from Dad," Woodrow went on hurriedly," is not to carry grudges. If you have a business dispute or a family problem, get it up on the tabletop and work it out. And I learned to keep every promise I make to a customer or a supplier or anybody else. And Dad taught me to ...."

"I have to interrupt," I said. "or you guys are going to spend all day slinging 'lessons learned' and 'lessons to be learned' back and forth."

"So who's right?" they demanded in unison.

"You're both right," I said. "Woodrow, you're defending the passing of experience and values from your father's generation to yours and now on to Bert. That's continuity, and it's vital to the strength of your family business."

Woodrow turned to Bert. "See? That's why you have to learn all the things I learned from Dad."

"Not so fast," I said. "Bert, you're defending adaptation to a changing business environment. That's also vital to your family business. Each of you has to reach across this divide and try to understand the other's point of view. Bert, there are many important things you should learn from your dad, things that he learned from his dad. Woodrow, you should open up to the new efficiencies that Bert wants to bring into the company. Your business has room enough for both continuity and growth."

Bert and Woodrow looked at one another. "Well," said Woodrow as Bert nodded, "I guess there are some things I didn't learn from Dad. We can learn them from each other."

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