“Hey Dad – thought you’d like to see the Facebook page I’ve set up for the business!”
“Facebook! I thought I told you that I didn’t want to know about that social media rubbish. The business has survived fine without it in the past and will continue to do so in the future.”
“And as for that Twittering your sister was going on about, it’s just silly nonsense for kids. What the heck could it possibly have that’s useful to the business?”
Had or heard a conversation like this lately?
This may be an example, but it’s a very real one. In our example, once ‘Dad’ calmed down and was a little more open to suggestion, his kids explained patiently that, in order to keep up with the competition, connecting with social media is essential in today’s world. They also explained that today more people interact with the business on their smartphones and tablets than in any other manner.
“It’s just like when you wanted to introduce spreadsheets,” they explained, “and Gramps insisted that everything should be written down in the book as it always had been”.
There has always been a generation gap in family businesses and it doesn’t always end up in calmed-down conversations like the one above. Sometimes it leads to great strain and the result can even be that the entire business fails, and families become divided.
If you and your children, or employees, or others in the business are at loggerheads when it comes to generational issues, here are a few thoughts about dealing with them.
Technology and Social Media meet the Generation Gap
Ever since the Industrial Revolution there has been conflict within family businesses regarding investing in new technology. Many small businesses rely on investment in high technology in order to grow, but older business owners have typically been more reluctant than their children to make the necessary investment. And this is even more the case when the technology doesn’t have an immediate impact on the bottom line. The younger generation is often much more concerned about the danger of falling behind the competition.
Over the last couple of decades, the gap has widened even further due mainly to the unprecedented change that has taken place in electronic communications. And this has resulted in extremely diverse attitudes to social media between baby boomers, the so-called “Generation X” (the generation following post-war baby boomers), and “Generation Y” (those born since the early 1980s) who have never known a world without computers and the internet.
You may feel this is a nettle that Generation X will never grasp (and perhaps this is you), but we’d recommend that one of the first steps to resolve this conflict is simply handing the job to someone from Generation Y, and trusting them to get on with it. After all, they use Facebook instead of email, Instagram instead of printing photos, and Dropbox instead of CD’s. It’s integral to who they are and how they live. Why not let them see if they can make a success of it in the business?
Autonomy and Succession
A more fundamental and potentially very damaging problem occurs when the older generation insists on keeping hold of the reins. There are many issues involved in this, but it comes down to a failure to distance business roles and communications from the parent-child relationship.
To protect your family business, look to avoid familial hierarchies and rely instead on mutual respect. As proper respect has to be earned it is essential that the younger generation is given ample opportunity to earn it. For instance, if (as we noted above) you give them sufficient autonomy to run some aspect of the business themselves, such as developing a social media marketing campaign, you might be pleasantly surprised. And they will enjoy their work more! The same applies to developing a new product or service, or opening a new branch.
Succession is also an important issue, and should form part of the business plan. When will the business owner finally step down and what will happen when he or she does? Trust is a big part of this and a breakdown of trust is one of the core reasons for family business failure.
The Generation Gap and Employees
The generational divide is not only of consequence to family members, it applies to employees too. Young employees have a different work attitude than that of their older colleagues, and in particular in terms of life work balance, loyalty and success. They do not mean the same to them as they meant to you when you were their age.
It is important to understand what motivates your younger employees; consider introducing paid time off work as a reward for a job well done along with opportunities for flexible working. They tend to be more motivated by short term gains than long term potential, so short term success should be rewarded.
Permitting them to engage with social media in the workplace and introducing BYOD (bring your own device) working can result in significant productivity gains.
Work-life balance conflicts can arise, too. Just because you worked eighty hour weeks in establishing the business doesn’t mean that your employees have to do the same.
Generation Gap Opportunities
Although generational issues can be damaging to the family business if they are not handled appropriately, there are also unique opportunities. Remember that differences in attitude are not always a bad thing!
For example, younger members are likely to be adventurous and risk taking, while you may have become more risk averse and conservative. Avoiding this and pushing younger people to hold back can really stunt your business’ growth – and can push away potential business successors. By embracing these differences and blending them appropriately, you can avoid the paralysis that results from being over conservative; and also avoid excessive risk taking to the point of recklessness.
Old attitudes may be hard to die, and old dogs might not readily learn new tricks, but each generation has something special to bring to the table. We’d encourage you to enjoy the feast and watch your business grow!