Birth order can be a significant factor in many situations. Should it be relevant in the succession of your family business?

If you’re like most parents, you probably strive to treat your children equally, paying special attention so as not to create jealousy or the illusion of favoritism. Additionally, you want to equip each of them with all of the tools they will need to be successful in life. Unfortunately, reality has a funny way of making “equal” unattainable.

I was recently working with a family in which Son 1 is 9 years older than Son 2. #1 was 29 years old and had been successfully working in the business for 7 years. #2 was still in college and a year away from graduation. #1’s entry to the business was anything but smooth as there were obvious entitlement issues. After a humbling first year however, he wisely worked hard to earn the respect of management and soon earned a management position. At the time I met with #1, it was clear that he had every intention to take the reins because, as he explained, he had already put in the time and his little brother wouldn’t want to challenge him for the business because “I’m already here.” While Dad was confident in #1’s ability to be his successor, Dad wasn’t sure of #2’s career goals and he knew #2’s graduation was about to open up a serious can of worms. Additionally, Mom would not settle for anything but completely equal treatment of her boys – if #2 wanted in the business, Dad would have to find a way to make it happen! Conversations with Dad revealed this situation was causing him to lose sleep.

Dad had a lot skills, but tap-dancing wasn’t one of them. This issue was so explosive to family harmony, that even bringing up the subject of a plan for #2 made him squirm in his seat. After a short discussion with #2, it was revealed that he had every intention of working with the family – much to #1 and Dad’s dismay.

Several delicate discussions later with every member of the family, an agreement was reached that would provide for each of the boys to meet certain criteria that would give them the opportunity to EARN a leadership role in the family business. It was a difficult task, to say the least, to convince #1 that he did not have the “inside track” on the successor role simply because he had seniority. Nonetheless, #1 got to the top first and awaited his brother’s arrival with clear expectations of working together.

Dad later acknowledged that he wasted several years of unnecessary concern! If he had only had the discussion with his family before #1 got in the business….

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