The easiest way to figure out if a barrel has a hole in it is to fill it full of water. Naturally the water will find the weakness in the structure. Outside pressure can call attention to underlying weaknesses, in the same way a newborn baby can unmask or accentuate marital problems. 2020 found families and businesses under pressure, stress and in the middle of the COVID crisis. For many family businesses this called attention to the structural damage or holes that were hidden inside the organization, leadership or family. 

Who is Running the Show? 

Family-owned businesses had little choice last year but to put the health of senior family members first. This might have created some unusual and unexpected power dynamics. Suddenly founders and senior leadership team members, who were high-risk, might have been sidelined and more junior, younger members of the family placed in charge. This shifting power dynamic might have exposed trust issues, succession planning problems and training weaknesses. 

The challenges of 2020 exposed leaks in the barrel that the Founder had been patching. The mortality reality in any family business is that the senior generation (e.g. Founder, Chairman, President) will not be around at some point. During the past year, has the senior generation felt confident that the younger generation could keep the business afloat while others quarantined at home? Was the older generation continuing to try to lead from afar? Did you experience criticism, blame, or undermining behavior? Were real time decisions later second guessed? A son who is criticized for his judgement calls, doesn’t just feel insecure in his career, he now feels that his own father doesn’t trust him. This dynamic can damage the relationship far beyond the workplace, creating long term business and relationship damage. Also, the leaking holes expose weaknesses about leadership and ownership plans for the future.

With most family businesses feeling the economic hit of 2020 many had to cut staff leaving family members running the business. This is an opportunity to applaud the younger generation for stepping up, making the hard decisions and leading in unexpected ways. Instead of criticizing their mistakes, let them know that everybody makes mistakes in business and that this is an opportunity for improvement and an area of training that you can help with.  Instead of turning on each other, take this as a moment to build a sense of teamwork and collaboration. 

The Emotional Toll

Perhaps the greatest toll that was unmasked during the pandemic is that life is uncertain and can be taken when we least expect it. Fathers, mothers, siblings, executives, middle management or line workers – COVID does not discriminate. The emotional toll of living with anxiety, separation from those we love, grieving in isolation, and fighting to keep the doors to our business open are only a few of the stressors we have endured. In a family business, all these matters are intertwined. When Sally from HR loses her husband, the entire organization grieves. When we have an outbreak and business comes to a screeching halt we all feel a tightening in our chest. When Dad receives a positive test and his daughter takes on the duties of family, business, community, along with her own emotional barrel, the holes will tell us where we may need help. 

Whether 2020 has exposed weaknesses in the business or hurts in family relationships or holes in succession planning, REGENERATION can help. With decades of experience helping family businesses navigate relationship conflicts and designing long-term succession plans we can help you be prepared for the next storm your family business might face with greater assurance in the strength of your ship. Let us help.

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