If you’re a family business leader like I am, there’s a good chance this statistic will resonate with you: only about a third of family businesses successfully make the transition to the second generation.
Sure, that seems pretty low. But there are all sorts of things that can make it challenging—or, in many cases, downright impossible—to pass down a family business. A younger generation might want to make drastic changes that cause conflict. Or, after growing up around the family business, your kids might just want to branch out.
But take it from me, when you try to pass down a family business to a third generation (like my dad did), things can get even more complicated.
How do I know? Well, let me tell you a story.
I’d worked for my dad at Jelmar for several years, building my career, working my way up the ranks, and gaining valuable knowledge from all my Jelmar colleagues. As they know, the happiness of those years was accompanied by sadness, as my mom suffered a long illness that finally took her from us a few years ago.
Near the end, my mom urged my dad to step back from the company and let me lead. I was ready, she told him. It was time. So my dad had to let go of someone he loved, while also letting go of the company he’d spent his whole career nurturing (after watching his dad do the same.)
In a way, my mom asking my dad to let go—and his promise to her that he would—was their way of unburdening one another. It couldn’t have been easy for him, but handing over the company to me became my dad’s way of honoring my mom’s memory.
At most companies, the board would’ve just voted on it.
So it’s easy to see the ways in which family businesses can complicate things, turning what could be objective, rational situations into subjective, emotional ones.
Plus, families are a lot more complex than they used to be. A few generations ago, for example, a business probably wouldn’t have been handed over to a daughter. And with many parents postponing having children until later in life, it’s increasingly common for family businesses to require interim management to bridge the gap between parents’ retirement and children’s coming of age. And that, of course, brings new concerns about whether the non-family manager will maintain the family’s traditions and standards.
That probably means today’s family businesses face more hurdles than ever before—so there’s a good chance that they’re even more emotionally fraught.
What’s a family business leader to do? In my opinion, it’s important to recognize that some of the challenges family businesses face are broader, cultural challenges that reach far beyond the business. I’m a great example of what’s been termed the “sandwich generation”—people who have responsibilities to both young children and older parents, usually on top of a demanding career. If that sounds like you, I guarantee that the society in which you live is primarily to blame, not your leadership skills!
And sure, you have to have a certain kind of outlook to deal with the ups and downs that come from working with family. Watching your promotion at work become inextricably tied to one of your most profoundly emotional family memories isn’t for everyone.
But in my case, the dialogue between my parents that resulted from my role in the family business imbued that difficult time with even greater meaning. In the end, it provided a sort of catharsis for all of us, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
What does reality TV star and social media maven Kim Kardashian West have in common with The Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik (who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience on screen and in real life)? If you said, “Nothing whatsoever,” I’d have been inclined to agree with you—that is, until I attended BlogHer in Los Angeles earlier this month.
This annual conference draws thousands of women bloggers, entrepreneurs and thought leaders to discuss issues ranging from career building to work/life balance to personal self-confidence. I was thrilled to have the chance to see keynotes from Kardashian West, Bialik, and other prominent speakers—and I was honored to deliver my own talk on my experiences as a female business leader and working mom.
But back to those two incredibly different keynote speakers. On the one hand, you’ve got a young woman who thrives in the spotlight and seems to be one of those personalities who’s “famous for being famous.” On the other hand, you’ve got a neuroscientist best known for playing a brilliant, quirky, and decidedly unglamorous TV character—and, more recently, for starting an online community featuring intellectual content by authors she admires.
And yet, as I listened to each keynote, a funny thing started to happen: even while discussing very different subjects, the two women began to touch on similar themes. Kardashian West answered questions about why she posts nude photos (“I do what makes me feel comfortable. … If you’re not comfortable, don’t do that”), while Bialik discussed her many interests (“Why do you talk about so many things? Because I THINK about so many things; I’m allowed!”).
In other words, regardless of what you think of Kardashian West and Bialik, one thing seems clear: both were advocating for the importance of authenticity. In her own way, each woman spoke of the need to remain true to one’s own personality, character, and beliefs, despite pressure to do otherwise.
And here’s the part that’s even more interesting: so did I.
In the breakout session I participated in, we had a wonderful discussion about why knowing yourself and what you stand for is critical for success in business. For example, no one should try to be an expert in everything, but being an expert in the things you’re passionate about will help you stay focused on success.
That’s not always easy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten distracted by what I like to call “head trash”—things that are easy to obsess about but that just don’t matter, like how I look. But staying focused on being my authentic self can help me overcome those thoughts and keep sight of what’s really important: the success of my business, the wellbeing of my employees, the happiness of my family and friends.
And those, of course, are nearly universal values, whether you’re a celebrity, a company president, or anyone else with the passion to pursue ambitious goals for your life and career.
As much as I love the barbecues, picnics, and fireworks that have become synonymous with July 4th—and believe, me, I do—as I grow older, I always try to find time to pause and reflect on what the holiday really means. And as the president of a family business that was built on three generations of American ingenuity, I’m reminded of the reasons why I’ve chosen to continue a family tradition of manufacturing Jelmar products in the U.S.A.
A generation or two ago, we were surrounded by products that were made in the United States. Your grandfather’s car? It’s a safe bet that it came from Detroit. Buying American was, well, the American way.
As many of Jelmar’s loyal customers are well aware, we’re proud of the fact that Jelmar products are made right here in the United States. In addition to keeping money circulating in our local communities and supporting U.S. jobs, manufacturing in the U.S. enables me to have greater control over quality. As a company president, I can tell you that nothing beats knowing that your longstanding customers are still getting the same caliber product that they did a few decades ago (or maybe even better!).
And while manufacturing in the U.S. might seem a little old-school to some, there’s another huge benefit that addresses a distinctly modern concern: I only need to transport my products hundreds of miles instead of thousands, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Given the steps we’ve taken to produce “greenvenient” reformulations of CLR® products, it’d be pretty silly—not to mention hypocritical—if we undid all those efforts in shipping.
Attention to quality, caring for the planet, supporting local economies—these are actions anyone (young or old) can get behind. And for Jelmar’s products, they go hand in hand with being American-made, on July 4th and every day of the year.
Sure, I should have known not to cut my own bangs. And yes, I should have known that curved manicure scissors were not the way to go. And, admittedly, when things went predictably and horribly wrong, I certainly shouldn’t have continued to cut my bangs shorter and shorter in an attempt to straighten them out!
That was just another invaluable life lesson, courtesy of summer camp. Whether it was late-night missions to steal popcorn from the kitchen, running away from camp only to get caught and dragged back by my older cousin, or my aforementioned revelation that I should never become a hairstylist, summer camp always gave me the sort of freedom that leads to large and small mistakes.
And that’s exactly why I send my own kids to camp every year. After a long school year of rules, schedules, homework, and adults planning and overseeing nearly every moment of their lives, they deserve a break. More to the point, they can benefit from a less structured environment, in which they learn how to succeed—and fail—without me to fall back on. Without experiencing that sort of independence, kids simply can’t understand or appreciate everything they’re capable of achieving.
New research in education and child psychology supports my point of view, suggesting that the overprotectiveness of recent generations of parents may have done children more harm than good. Consider the rise of the “adventure playground”—a space that’s filled with things like tires, boxes, old furniture, and pieces of wood instead of standard playground equipment. Kids are given almost total autonomy: adults keep watch for impending accidents but otherwise don’t interfere. The point of this somewhat radical idea? To let kids figure out lessons about safety, camaraderie, fairness, and self-reliance on their own.
Of course, independent play in a potentially dangerous environment may be on the extreme side, but I send my kids to summer camp with similar goals for their development. For example, last year at camp, my 9-year-old daughter learned to water ski—a structured activity to be sure, but one that posed a challenge and even a bit of a risk. She fell down countless times, facing frustration and discouragement; however, by conquering that risk alone, without me standing by her side, my daughter had to summon a level of courage and self-confidence she’d never had before. She still considers learning to water ski one of her biggest achievements.
I can hardly begin to count all the ways in which my summer camp experiences as a child and adolescent have contributed to my career success as an adult. Those couple months away from my parents every summer prepared me for the adult world in ways I never could have imagined at the time. In addition to building courage and having the opportunity to surprise myself with what I could accomplish, camp helped me strengthen my own identity by enabling me to pursue things I loved, like theater. That’s why I believe the best way to help my kids grow into confident, happy, independent adults is to let go—just a little.
I’ll never forget the time my dad had a business trip scheduled during my school play, so he went to great lengths to make sure he could at least see a dress rehearsal. It wasn’t as if it was my Broadway debut, but both my parents certainly treated it as the special event that it was for me at the time. I’ll always remember it as a great example of how they often went out of their way to be involved in my life.
When I was a kid, few people were really talking about things like work/life balance, workplace stress, or parental leave. Nevertheless, my dad, with my mom’s encouragement, always found ways to prioritize time with my sister and me, even while he ran a national cleaning company. Since then, our society has come a long way when it comes to workplace flexibility, whether it’s state laws requiring paid parental leave or major companies shifting to policies that emphasize goals accomplished rather than hours in the office. My parents, in other words, were pretty ahead of their time.
Now that I’m a mother of two, and running the same national cleaning company my dad did, I often think about his approach to balancing work and family. And in many ways, I have it easy. When I was a kid, if I wanted to talk to my dad while he was out of town, I had to plan to be home at a specific time so I wouldn’t miss his call. (For the benefit of any Millennial readers, I’ll explain that once upon a time, voicemail didn’t exist. Also we called it an “answering machine,” but never mind that now.) The point is, whether it’s phone, text, video chat or email, I have countless ways to be present in my kids’ lives when I’m traveling or just working late.
In the two decades that I’ve worked at Jelmar, I’ve learned a few key lessons on how to excel at work while also prioritizing the people you love:
- Find alternative ways to be involved. We all experience feelings of guilt if we can’t attend every sports game, dance recital, and play. But you can always find an alternative way to participate in your child’s activities, like my dad did with my dress rehearsal. While being physically present is important, making arrangements to have the event documented on video—then watching with your child later—is a great way to stay involved in their life. In my experience, making that extra effort to show how much you want to be there for your kids can be just as memorable.
- Seek out caregivers with shared values. When we look for nannies, babysitters and other caregivers, we check references and conduct background checks to make sure we’re hiring someone we can trust. But it’s also important to look for a less obvious type of trustworthiness: can you rely on this person to parent your kids in the same way you would? Will this caregiver teach life skills and instill values that you agree with? Once you find that special caregiver who fits in well with your family, it’s important to treat him or her like family. (A well-paid and well-treated caregiver is much more likely to stick around long-term!)
- Help promote workplace flexibility. As the president of Jelmar, I think a lot about my employees’ happiness and wellbeing, and I want to do everything I can to provide them the same flexibility I want for myself and my family. I have a dedicated, hardworking team, and I find ways to reward them, such as a regular 4:30 closings and half days on Fridays. Many of my employees have jobs that can be performed remotely and/or outside normal business hours, and I empower them to use their judgment to determine if and when that’s required. I find that my staff repays this trust with their loyalty and a desire to help the business succeed.
It’s true that when we’re overwhelmed and stressed out at work, setting aside quality time for family can seem like an extra burden. So we sometimes let it fall by the wayside, skipping family dinners, school events, and other opportunities to show our kids how much we care about them. Most parents will never be able to make it to every single event, and that’s OK. In my experience, it’s the times you went the extra mile to be there for your kids—despite the inconvenience—that they’ll remember decades later.
- The Unexpected Challenge of Generational Succession
- My BlogHer Experience: Why Authenticity is the Key to Success in Business
- Why “Made in the U.S.A.” will never go out of style
- School’s out for the summer, but life lessons for kids are just beginning
- 3 key tips for balancing work and family
- It’s time for everyday environmentalism that works for everyone
- My advice for any rebranding project: listen to your customers
- Why the best business knowledge can come from the most unexpected sources
- The benefits of embracing the messiness of life
- Think bigger: my thoughts on thankfulness this holiday season
- Why an imperfect holiday dinner can be totally perfect
- Why a clean hotel room is even more important than you think