Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Help Mom! Dad is Still Trying to Run the Business!

Does the title ring a bell? One of the oldest problems in business is when and how to accomplish succession and transfer control of the family business to the next generation. The only natural succession point is at the death of the previous generation, and the problems of that timing are obvious to those who study history and see the parallel between early-history kingdoms and family businesses. So we can agree that the next generation should take over while the older generation is still alive, but this leaves the question of how quickly the decision-making power should be transferred. After all, it is true that the older generation is both more experienced and less in touch with current affairs. What to do?

In a recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly, Jian Bai Li and Henning Piezunka looked at this transition from father to son (their data had few women in charge) as one of handling succession in a multiplex network tie. A network tie is any social connection between two people, and a multiplex tie is one that spans different social arenas. I have a multiplex tie with my boxing trainer who seeks my advice on his entrepreneurial venture. A father–son pair involved in the same business has a multiplex tie because, well, they are father and son.

For a father to hire his son in the family business is unproblematic because the father has higher rank in both the family and the business. For a son to succeed his father in leading a family business is problematic for the same reason – the lower-rank family position of the son now is coupled with a higher-rank business position as top manager, unless the father leaves the business entirely. I think we understand that leaving the business completely is difficult, especially for a founder, and being managed by a son is not any easier. Of course the father, being a father, can make sure that the son bears most of the cost of the complications this entails, because he can draw on his authority in the family sphere whenever necessary.

As the title suggested, this leaves a role for the mother. The research showed that she could very effectively handle the transition by barring work discussions from the family context and advising the father and son separately on how to handle each other. But this required that she not work at the firm, because any role she had in the firm would complicate relations and make her a participant rather than an advisor. In network terms, the mother could help the succession only if she was involved in only one of the multiplex ties between father and son. When she was involved in the firm as well as the family, succession failed. Indeed, I am personally familiar with a succession process that failed exactly because the mother was also involved in the business, so to me this rings true.

This research was done in China, but I think those who know family business succession elsewhere will know the problem of succession well. Because this way of solving the problem is based on sound network theory principles, it is likely to help family business succession everywhere, including in contexts in which the mother is the founder, more than one sibling might be involved in succession, and the neutral advisor may or may not be a family member. Succession is never easy, but being aware of the multiplex network roles of those involved and using them to better advantage could make it less painful.