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 Mentorship key to preparing the next generation in a family business

 

 Family businesses are renowned for their strength and resilience, but even so, it is estimated that only about 3% of family businesses survive after the third generation. Survival or demise hinges more often than not on the extent to which the next generation is trained and prepared for running the business, says Christo Botes, executive director of Business Partners Limited.

​​Anyone born into a successful family business can be considered extraordinarily lucky, but the position often comes with an unfair burden of expectation. The sons and daughters of a pioneer business founder are often expected to have somehow inherited the same characteristics that have made their father or mother successful, without careful consideration given to differences in temperament and upbringing. The expectation that, having grown up in a family business, your business prowess and even your business knowledge ought to “come naturally” can lead to neglect of the intense preparation that anyone needs if they are to make a success of running a business.

Education, training and years of experience and hard work is just as necessary for the next generation to take over a family business as it is for any professional manager who wants to become the CEO of a company. Mentorship is a crucial part of this preparation, says Botes. It takes many forms, and should continue throughout the lives of everyone involved in the family business.

The first form of mentorship that family-business entrepreneurs encounter is perhaps the most important for shaping their values. It is the dinner-table conversations of their parents that they hear and later take part in. It may be the most informal form of mentorship, but it is probably the most powerful. By listening to their parents discuss the business ups and downs, they assimilate the way that their parents exploit opportunities and solve business problems.

Business owners who want their children to be involved in the business one day should remain aware of this all-important role modelling. The way they speak about the business, its problems and its successes, and the way in which they draw their children into the conversation has a profound effect on the next generation.

While it is around the dinner table that the seed of entrepreneurship is planted in the next generation, there is also the danger that a particularly lethal poison may be imparted – the assumption by the next generation that it is their birth right to take over the business one day, irrespective of their level of talent, skills and commitment, says Botes.

Family businesses survive only as long as the next generation know that their right to take over the business one day is not inherited, but earned by toiling in the enterprise, starting off at the lowest level that their schooling and qualifications justify. Crucial professional development have to take place over many years in which they move up the managerial ranks of the family business, and mentorship can play a key role in this process. Mentors can come in many forms, including managers who oversee their work in the early stages of their career, experts that they meet during their studies, or outside advisors appointed specifically to prepare the next generation for leadership.

Of course the mentorship role of the parents running the business continues throughout the formative years of the up-and-coming generation, irrespective of the presence of other formal or informal mentors. Even if they don’t provide detailed mentorship to shape the workaday managerial skills of their children, they play a critical role in passing on their values, principles and general business approach to the next generation.

While timeless family values are a source of strength, so too is the ability of a family business to renew itself and innovate. In many family businesses the younger generation are encouraged to spend a few years gaining experience in the outside world, perhaps overseas, in the corporate sector, or in a completely different industry where they will find mentors of their own along the way. The skills, insights and work experience gained in this way can be invaluable for the survival of the business in a changing world.

Sometimes the most valuable contribution that a good mentor can make to the heirs in a family business is not preparing them to take over the business one day, but, on the contrary, to help them decide not to join the family business. It can be extremely painful when the heirs expect to take over the business but fail to prove competent, or when the heirs feel pressurised by the expectation of the parent to take over the business when they simply don’t want to.

In situations like these a sensitive mentor, often someone quite independent from the parents, can help the family reflect on whether the next generation are truly suited to run the business or whether the business should rather be handed over to professional outside management. Mentors can help to cultivate self-knowledge among the heirs, and mediate a dignified exit for family members from the management of the business. There are many alternative roles such as passive shareholding or non-executive directorships that family members can play. A good mentor can coach and coax them into such positions without unnecessary disappointment and family tension. 

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