Friday, September 27, 2019

Rise of the Moderately Capable: Succession in Family Business

How can the prince of an absolute monarch survive and inherit the throne? How can the child of a family business founder take over the business? Two different questions with the same answer: Don’t be too ambitious, and don’t be too capable. This sounds like a bleak story, so I should explain the research behind it.

The theory and evidence are found in a recent article in Administrative Science Quarterlyby Xu Huang, Louis Chen, Erica Xu, Feifei Lu, and Ka-Chai Tam. They look at the problematic situation that parents and successors of family businesses find themselves in. Family business founders believe that success comes from exactly their actions and values, so successors should imitate them exactly. Yet imitating them too closely creates competition, which encourages the parent to dominate the child instead of giving the successor freedom.

How can this domination be avoided? The answer is simple and discouraging. The successor should not be too ambitious or too capable, because these attributes would increase the competition and lead to dominance by the founder. In fact, highly ambitious and capable children will be dominated by the family business founder because they are too good, just as unambitious and incapable children will be dominated because they are not good enough.

The research team found evidence for this through surveys of family business founders and successors in China. But they went further than that: One part of their study looked at how princes of Chinese monarchies before 1000 AD fared, finding that those who were not too ambitious and capable had the best chance of succeeding the king. Of course, not succeeding an absolute monarch is a little worse than not taking over a family business – those who failed might be killed by their father and replaced by a more amenable prince.

So in some ways the world has improved, because the price of being too capable is no longer death. But this research still does not deliver good news. Family businesses are very important in most parts of the world. If only the moderately capable successors gain freedom, these firms will not become as successful as they might, to the cost of the family, the employees, and society. Strictly speaking this effect has been shown for only the founder generation of family businesses, and we could hope that it disappears in the second or third generation.  

Family businesses are complicated because they mix family and business, which are usually kept apart in modern society. In the ancient world family and business were the same thing, and I can’t help wondering whether that meant they had better mechanisms for dealing with the mix than we do now.