Tony & Gordon – The Ideal Family Business?

September 6, 2006

The Tony Blair-Gordon Brown drama is such a fine example of the dilemmas facing family businesses – albeit on a much larger canvas. By family business I not only mean a business that is started and operated by a family but also those that are run by close colleagues. In both – the boundaries between what’s personal and what’s professional are very closely aligned. Think for a moment about your own family. Think about the innate ability of your (insert appropriate person here) to push precisely that button that makes you revert to being 10….now think about that person being a work colleague, boss or staff member and you are only scratching the surface of what working in a family business can be like.
The biggest challenge facing family businesses is that of succession. At what point does “Parent” move over and let “Child” take over the operation? Is it when s/he dies? Does s/he have to commit suicide? Can s/he plan that at some point in the future he will step aside and oversee an orderly transition. Unfortunately the latter happens less often than you would think.
In the first instance there’s never a right time – the second generation has to wait until their Parent is dead in order to step into running the operation. It’s a constant waiting role for the “top job”…(another prominent family in the UK springs to mind..)…and the reality is it may never arrive if the second generation departs (either through death, resignation or other). It may also generate fantasies of “murder” – hoping that someone or something else takes out the leader so that the second generation may step in.
In the second scenario the Parent must commit “suicide” – i.e. killing themselves off as head of the family in order that the next generation may live.
Children can find it difficult to leave the family home and build lives of their own – add to this the guilt of any “Child” wanting to avoid it all by not participating in the business (i.e. abandoning the family); how that gets talked (or not talked about) and suddenly there are Shakesperian dramas that sound very pertinent.
Why does this sound so dramatic? Suicide/murder/succession/power/politics/guilt – they all weave a very dramatic context in which identity and role are negotiated and acted out. Parent isn’t only the head of the family – s/he is head of the business. If s/he steps down as the business leader – what does this mean for their role as the leader of the family – will s/he still be respected? Will s/he still maintain a powerful position in the family – will anyone listen to him or her?
How then can a second generation evolve into being who they are if they are waiting to literally and metaphorically step into their parent’s shoes? Is it possible to be your “own person” if the role has been already defined? If your Parent always knows better? It’s one thing thinking about the Super-Ego as a psychological concept and another if the Super-Ego is staring at you across the board room table!
Now back to Tony and Gordon for a moment. Tony has said he will leave (some day) he won’t say exactly when so the family is getting anxious. Meanwhile the second generation (Gordon) is waiting, and waiting and waiting. Recent news reports talk of the mounting frustration in the family that Tony won’t roll over. There is talk of “murder” and of wishing Tony would do the “decent thing” and commit “suicide” by stepping down. On the surface there is a desire for an orderly transition, beneath the surface there are dramatic tensions worthy of a Greek tragedy.
I’ve always enjoyed working with family businesses because it is the closest we get to seeing where the personal and professional overlap. It’s not enough to know how business works – you also have to know how families work. Boundary building; core issues of life and death; identity; ownership and leadership are critical issues to be worked with. At the end of the day – it’s about working out what works for the business and what works for the family – sometimes, but not always they are the same thing. But in a family business it’s not possible to say “it’s business, not personal” because it’s always “personal” and sometimes “business.”