Passing the torch in a multigenerational business—how to keep the torch lit.

by IdeaTransfer on April 29, 2012

Really, this isn’t Hollywood where the villagers chase down the madman with all-night torches.  Passing the torch is real.  Torches can go out.

As long as we have the torch  metaphor going, think of the torch itself as what a successor needs to know to assure continuity of the business—everything related to customers, products, and services, integrated with the operational and financial mechanics, and an acute awareness of the environment in which the company competes.

That’s a heavy torch even for two hands hold.  But how to keep it lit?  Add a lot of  high viscosity fuel, burning slowly and carefully over years.  Let the fuel symbolize the relationship chemistry between founder and successor.  And the best fuel ever invented for passing the torch is generational empathy.

A few years ago IdeaTransfer came up with a new way to look at generations and coined the names Gutenbergs and Goooglebergs, using communication style and technology adoption as generational differentiators.

  • Gutenbergs live in a linear world symbolized by the book with its beginning, middle and end.
  • Googlebergs leap around the information buffet of search engines, self-organizing click-by-click.
  • Gutenbergs write emails for meaningful one-on-one exchanges.
  • Googlebergs spread their texts and posts and tweets in vast networks, leaving meaning to the eye of the beholder…and so on.

Of course, while Gutenbergs are a more homogenous, comprising 80 million Baby Boomers, the Googlebergs have to be deconstructed further to understand  business succession relationships.

When high Boomer divorce rates led to complex family structures, the biological meaning of generation gave way to a cultural meaning.  Googlebergs are all the product of Gutenberg parents yet live in two separate subcultures—GenX (’65-’80) and Millennials (’80-’00).  Founder/successor relations for these two groups are worlds apart, and Boomers will have to pay attention to make those relationships work.

Let’s say you are an archetypal Baby Boomer entrepreneur tiptoeing into your sixth decade.  You are creative, focused, controlling, prepared, competitive, optimistic, and enthusiastic—the founder stereotype. But that isn’t how you started.  Only a handful of all the college-age Boomers fooling around in the garage with their buddies invented anything to build businesses on.  Bill Gates and Steven Jobs are aberrations—the majority of Boomer entrepreneurs didn’t start to chase their entrepreneur dreams until mid-career.

So, what’s the kneejerk complaint from Boomer founders about GenX and Millennial successors?  Work ethic—too little commitment, too much entitlement. Empathy requires you get past that.  Don’t compare their mindset today with your mindset today.  Remember exactly what you were like at 30—before your inner entrepreneur emerged.

Creative—yes but far more to come.  Focused—more likely full of angst and doubt.  Controlling, competitive, risk-taker—probably not in a good way.  Optimistic and enthusiastic—yeah, but also impatient, self-absorbed, and perceived as having a chip.  Don’t put expectations you formed after your breakthrough on the backs of young people who may be just like you before your breakthrough.  That’s generational empathy.

Now let’s get down to specifics.  Even if your successor is a family member or a member of your business family, they are subject to subculture thought patterns that trump biology and common sense.  Don’t ignore these patterns—integrate them into the succession plan.  Here are some examples.

Your GenX Successor

The GenX story starts with instability—50% divorce rate, two-parent careers, latchkey isolation, economic swings between gas crisis and prosperity followed by recession.  Insecurity feeds suspicion but breeds self-reliance.  So, what’s its impact on successor/founder relationships?

  • Don’t engage in succession with a wait-and-see attitude—demonstrate your commitment and support to gain their commitment and appreciation.
  • Accept that they are skeptical of the future and the past—give them reasons to buy into a vision and opportunities to shape it and never say, “Trust me, this is how it’s done.”
  • Respect their independence and their distain of hierarchies—encourage their casual leadership style but prove the value of policies, procedures, and accountability.

GenX didn’t create personal computers, but by transforming them from cool to indispensable they earned more credit for the Technology Age.  They don’t t get any.  Once again they feel alienated and unsure where they belong.  You can solve that.

  • Give them freedom to prove themselves—they thrive on innovation and are driven to get things done.
  • Their view of entrepreneurism is more about reengineering than creating—let them question everything and fix anything as long as they understand and respect your business values and standards along the way.
  • Self-reliance is their ideal—show them how your business hands them that goal and makes them part of an even bigger one.

Your Millennial Successor

It’s a little early to engage Millennials in business succession, but not too early for a head’s up.  Their numbers are just as huge as Boomers.  They were indoctrinated in childhood to believe everyone  is special—reinforced by family, school, children’s TV, and bumper stickers—even without ever having to do something special.

  • They are clever, resourceful, hardworking, capable of continuous multitasking—but you need to keep them on track with a destination, roadmap, timetable, and milestones.
  • They are ambitious for knowledge than status—turn your succession plan into a rare learning challenge.
  • Empowerment is their drug—coach them, don’t boss them, give them positive feedback and when it’s negative turn it into a positive.
  • Their trust in technology is unshakable—so trust their high expectations for improving everything through technological change (“Trust but verify”).
  • They have high social ideals and distain for settling for less—show them how to make a difference through your business.
  • Working in teams with diverse members is second nature—give them space to be communal but help them learn corporate standards, business etiquette, and accountability.
  • They want workstyle to conform to lifestyle—show them you really do understand balance is better than obsession.

You can find other posts in the Time and Legacy categories site about the personal and psychology factors that impact passing the torch—extreme independence, misguided protectionism, boundaries and baggage, and the practical value of founder and successor development agreements.  But without the generational empathy—understanding, insight, respect—all the other factors won’t be enough.

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