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Motivating Prospective Family Member Successors

Many of you have kids in high school, college or who have just entered the workforce. As you see them grow and mature, you have dreams of them working for the family business. But now that your children are getting older and your dreams of them joining the business can soon become reality, you find yourself in a quandary as they’re not giving you "positive vibes" about this idea.

Not to worry, this is not an uncommon situation. I am frequently asked, "How do I motivate my children to choose a career in my business?" Having pondered this with countless clients and had the opportunity to interview most of their kids, allow me to try and shed some light on this question.

First, do not assume that your children are not interested in a career in your business if they have:

  • Stated how much they love their current job
  • Mentioned how they plan to pursue their dream career
  • Not explicitly expressed a plan to work at your dealership

The fact is almost all kids are at least minimally interested in a job or career in their family's business. They have a good grasp of the obvious and understand the family business offers terrific career and financial opportunities.

Where they stand in their specific interests varies with the unique circumstances of each child, family and business. Some don't want to come across as presumptive or entitled. Some may be reluctant to pursue a career that is complicated by family relationships. Some legitimately have unique talents or interests that are currently drawing them elsewhere, which may or may not reflect a permanent career choice. Others, under prior encouragement of "follow your dreams," are giving due diligence to career options that you think are crazy or ridiculous. Cinematography, computer game design and my favorite, oceanography, come to mind.

The best way to find out what’s going on behind your kid’s forehead is to respectfully inquire. Regardless of age, you will not come across as pushy or assuming if you ask about their career thinking and if they've given any thought to joining the business. If for any number of reasons initiating this dialogue will be awkward, ask an appropriate advisor to initiate the discussion. You’ll be amazed what you can learn from a simple question. The reality is that in response to genuine inquiry, your children will become more talkative, more open to your motivation and ultimately make a career decision with the knowledge that a role in the family business is a viable option.

Motivation, in general, is the ability to influence others to take action. For this article’s sake however, it means the ability to influence your child to pursue a career in your business and potentially be your successor.

Exterior influence such as guilt, social standing, and financial gain can generate influence. However as soon as the source of influence is no longer present (you die or retire) the motivation begins to dissipate. I have met a battalion of disillusioned successors over the years who at 50 to 60 years of age realized they pursued a career in the family business for all the wrong reasons. They lack passion, are ineffective leaders and the performance of the business reflects their lack of enthusiasm. As a result, they find themselves trapped because sale proceeds of an organization without a leader would not support their lifestyle. In light of this reality, lead your children to choose a career in your dealership based upon the fulfillment of realistic goals and needs.

Wealth is an external motivator that I have never seen lead to fulfillment. The pursuit of self-serving wealth can drive success but not achieve happiness. Although the ride may appear fun from a distance, a career devoted to supporting self-indulgence will create an impressive array of things that will only complicate peace, relationships and happiness.

When you set out to lead your children, remember that they are going to do what they are internally motivated to do whether you like it or not. However, parenting does speak to protecting, providing, managing, guiding, counseling and hopefully providing internal influence to motivate them towards a productive, self-supporting and fulfilling life. Consequently there are some basic parenting concepts that can help you impact your children's internal motivation that can help lead them to pursue a career in your business.

The first concept is to understand that as a parent, although you have an important impact, you are only a part of the influence that will dictate your children's motivation. With this in mind, my advice is for you to jump into the motivational fray but don't assume that you are at the wheel. Your children will also be influenced by physiology, genetics, other family members, teachers and random chance. You can have a major impact but do not plan to take all the credit or take all the blame for whatever career choice your child makes, or for that matter is capable of making.

Remember that your walk speaks much clearer than your talk. Irrespective of what you have said, the joy and enthusiasm you demonstrate for your business will have the greatest motivating impact upon your children who presumably know and respect you. Those who care for you will notice if you draw energy from your business, if you are having fun in your business and if you are being fulfilled through your personal mission within the business. Therefore, try to motivate your children by demonstrating enthusiasm, appreciation and love for your business. Assuming your kids don't feel emotionally neglected due to your commitment to the business, they will take some level of ownership (good or bad) of your feelings.

Your walk does not lie to family. They will know if there is more to your business than the money. They will know if your business demands more of you than it gives back. Don't disrespect them by trying to tell your children something about a prospective career that is contradictory to what they have observed. Recognize that your greatest influence is when it is least intended - children overhear what you say to others better than they hear what you say to them. When speaking to others (spouse, partners, neighbors, etc.) directly or over the phone, be aware of what you are saying. Fundamentally, do not expect your children to be excited about a business that led to a divorce, drove you to drink or positioned them to overhear you proclaiming "this business is killing me," "I hate my partner," or "why have I put up with this crap".

The importance of your walk does not mean your talk does not matter. Think like a recruiter. You may need to do some explaining about perceived inconsistencies in your walk. Don't ignore what may have happened that could have created negative influence. If you want your children in your business, as circumstances avail, explain what happened and don't be too big to apologize. Take personal responsibility for any divorces, chemical abuse or neglect; don't let them think that the business was the culprit. When discussing the business, be enthusiastic and speak in terms of how the business fulfills you.

Don't put pressure on your children by expressing that you are counting on them to fulfill your vision of succession. However, don't be reluctant to share your goal for succession. Most important, tell them why you have a succession goal. The answer to this "why question" is very personal and therefore very impactful. You will make them feel special through sharing your personal intimate feelings about them, your legacy, your employees and your industry. Most importantly, you will position yourself to respond to their statements or questions.

If your children express they want to pursue a career, don't immediately start making plans for employment. Express appreciation that they would look favorably upon supporting your succession goal, but defer employment discussion to an appropriate time when you have thought things through.

When responding to their comments about a career, speak in anticipatory generalities, not specific plans which could put pressure on them or reduce your flexibility. Reiterate that your goal is for their happiness and fulfillment. While you have their attention share that an automobile dealership is an extraordinarily diverse and powerful social and financial organization. Don't over sell and don't paint an unrealistic picture but reiterate hard work, opportunity, challenge, fun and gratification. Find a way to express that profits and wealth are just one of the indicators of success; the essence of success is the overall favorable impact upon family, employees and community.

In the words of Dr. Merlot, engaging capable, adventurous prospective successors in honest, revealing, positive, abstract talk about their future role in your business is like chumming for sharks. There may not be any current action but while you are waiting you best be ready for the action when they take the hook. Equally important as you pull them in, you had better be thinking about how you are going to handle these feisty kids after you bring them on board.


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