On my last day working at my family’s 106 year old business, having placed it into administration in 2009, I knew I had a job to go to the following week. I’d been head hunted within our industry but what I really wanted was the answer to: “how did it fail?”
Were my dreams, vision and effort all in vein? Was my great grandfather’s legacy now lost? I set about unpicking it all, desperate to examine what I was continuing to live.
Firstly, I contacted people I trusted within my network as I believed I needed to start with where I was and what had recently happened and then work backwards through time and events. This was especially important to me given that I felt the support for family businesses, which account for over 90% of the world’s enterprises, was so out of touch and outdated.
I met with professors and academics, with insolvency practioners, wealth managers, psychologists, therapists, entrepreneurs, members of family businesses, investors, other professional service providers, my own family members, journalists and anyone that would kindly give their time, knowledge and thoughts. I also started reading prolifically and embraced any resources I could find.
As a designer and engineer, who had a deep fascination with psychology and human behavior, I started to discover patterns. There were repeating themes not just with other family businesses but everywhere I turned.
The main thing I heard, either implicitly or explicitly, from the extensive range of people I spoke to was the question “Who am I?”. Whether this was a son working within his father’s business, a mother with growing children or an associate in a legal firm hoping to make partner, this question kept showing up. I still hear and see this question daily , revealing itself in people’s unconscious.
So what did this mean to me and our own family business? Everything. It suddenly made sense when I thought of each of our family members and their specific and unique story. My mum having been a daughter rather than a son and being discouraged from working in the business, my cousin being the only son of three children who ended up knowing his fate from the age of 4; to follow his father, grandfather and great grandfather into the business.
His own father, had shared his three critical lessons with me when I’d presented my Management Buy Out plan to him several years earlier, again highlighting the deep issue of not knowing who he was.
Having committed his support for my plans for the business, he told me of how he’d run the business for over 40 years and that the first lesson for me was that he had never wanted to run the business. He had taken over as CEO from his father after his premature death thrusting him into a role he felt unprepared, for accepted full responsibility for. He’d actually wanted to be an inventor in a small shed, finding innovative solutions using a lathe, his practical skills and creative mind.
He continued with his lessons moving to the second, this being that he felt unable to deal with issues over the 40 years due to family obligation and a sense of burden – the unspoken words and actions to resolve problems which ended up causing deeper challenges over time for which he apologized and acknowledged I’d now have to deal now with.
The final lesson was the most emotional; as his voice faltered and eyes filled with the tears of over 40 passing years, he asked if he could tell me about his own father. His words will stay with me; “I have never had the chance to grieve for my dad. He was amazing and yet all I can tell you is what it was like to pick up his brief case which almost still felt warm from his touch knowing I now had to step in to not only run the business, but also the family. My dad died the day before, but the business needed running and it fell on my shoulders and I carried the weight of his dreams, legacy and memory”.
At this point it seemed as if a small boy sat in front of me, despite being in his 70s, and he broke down – with the pain being the full extent of a boy losing his beloved daddy. All I could do was wrap my arms round this man and promise I’d do my best and remember the gift of his lessons.
Knowing who you truly are is complicated as we seek permission and acceptance of not just our family and peers but of society. We need to understand and accept ourselves and our beliefs – so that we can grant self-permission. This need is increasing as we further lose ourselves in the world around us.