The Hero’s Farewell: Succession & Family Business Relationships

Sunday, June 14, 2020
The Hero’s Farewell: Succession & Family Business Relationships

‘The Hero’s Farewell’ is the poignantly and aptly named title of a book by US academic Jeffrey Sonnenfeld that he wrote in the late 1980s to describe the departure styles of prominent founders and leaders of family businesses.

After interviewing more than 200 US family business leaders Sonnenfeld, a professor of Harvard Business School, identified and developed a typology of CEO departure styles.

Sonnenfeld believed that in their late careers many of these leaders lived with what he described as a misunderstood heroic mission; a quest for immortal legacy and heroic stature or a quest for renowned identity. These often unconscious quests or missions can cause leaders or founders of family businesses to behave in ways that can frustrate any one or even all three systems of a family business – the family, the management or the shareholders. You may therefore recognise any of these four different types of departure or ‘non-departure’ in your own family business. Seeking to understand behaviour and address such frustrations through a focus on the relevant relationships can be of great help.

Depending on which style of departure, or non-departure, your family business leader falls under will dictate how you, as the next generation of leader/s of your family business will be impacted upon. First understanding, and then choosing how to react are critical factors to a successful transition.

The four styles Sonnenfield identified are:

  1. The Monarchs Monarchs do not leave office until they are decisively forced out through death or through an internal palace revolt. This palace revolt may be in the form of ultimatums, the resignations of top officers, or the action of the Board of Directors.
  2. The Generals Generals depart in a style also marked by forcible exit but here, whilst the chief executive leaves office reluctantly, he or she plots their return and quickly comes back to office out of retirement in order to rescue the company from the real or imagined inadequacy of his or her successor. The General enjoys being the returning saviour and often hopes to remain around long enough to take the firm and him or herself toward even greater glory.
  3. The Ambassadors Ambassadors by contrast, leave office quite gracefully and frequently serve as post-retirement mentors. They may remain on the Board of Directors for some time, but they do not try to sabotage the successor. Ambassadors provide continuity and counsel.
  4. The Governors Governors rule for a limited term of office, then shift to other vocational outlets entirely after retirement. Despite their fairly graceful exits, the governors maintain very little ongoing contact with their firm once they have left

It is my view that the departure styles identified above by Sonnenfeld fall into any one of the 16 personality types identified by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst who first published his theory of psychological type in 1921. His work since then has been influential not only in psychiatry but also in anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy and religious studies.

In 1985 Jung’s famous personality type theory was taken on by the mother and daughter team and family business duo, Isabel Myers and Catharine Briggs who developed the now internationally well-known Myers-Briggs personality profile instrument used extensively today in both business and relationship work. Since then a range of other excellent personality type instruments have also been developed.

A knowledge and understanding of your own personality type and that of the members of your family business can be extremely powerful in terms of the relationships you have with each other as individuals but also in terms of the personality profile of each group or system within your family business; e.g. the family-as-a-whole group, the management-as- a-whole group and the shareholders-as- a-whole group. Such knowledge is not just fascinating but is also power-fuel and highly relevant for family businesses confronting transition and succession where its relationships and complex multiple systems can easily provoke challenge and conflict. Leaders preparing for succession, or even thinking about their own future can do well to truly understand their ‘type’. And even unique leaders fall into a personality type, unconscious as that may be!

Preparing for a New Season

If you or the leader of your family business is confronting change and transition, then feeling in control of your own situation is critical. No-one likes change forced upon them. No-one likes to let go of things they love or things they have brought into the world (if you are the founder). Feeling in control, having choice for your future, clarifying a goal to aspire to, enables a sense of ambition to live on! A pragmatic process for Preparing for a New Season frees you to reveal what you can gain, what you can do next, a much healthier and more agreeable concept than feeling fearful about what you think you may be leaving behind. It can also be a relief for a founder’s or leader’s spouse to be part of such a process.

Educate Yourself

Understanding, supporting and working with your own ‘Hero’s Farewell’ leads to effective and happy family business best practice and transition. Learn about your preferred way of being and your personality profile, possibly even revealing the ‘heroic stature’ or nature of your hopes and wishes for the future. Because revealing this to yourself gives you freedom to achieve it; and because succession and transition in a family business are notoriously challenging, for all concerned. Become aware of your most likely ‘departure style’ and then decide if that really is the style you want to use as you prepare for your new season. What is the style that would most likely ensure the legacy you wish to leave behind?

What style of your departure from your family business would be most beneficial for you, the people you love and the people who will lead your family business into a successful future? Sonnenfeld believes that “The departure styles in family business successions vary greatly according to the generational stage of the enterprise.

“For first-to- second-generation transitions, we may expect Monarch profiles of exit. Firms at this stage are likely to be led by figures with strong heroic needs to create. The intra- generational sibling and cousin warfare in the second-to-third generation of a family business may give rise to a greater likelihood of a General profile of exit. The third-to-fourth generation of leadership transition is likely to display Ambassador patterns, marked by feelings of obligation to continue family values and to cautiously preserve accumulated family wealth.”

If your hero’s farewell is relevant to your family business now or in the future, give some thought to the legacy you would like to leave behind, the guiding principles/shared values of your family business and what you hope the members of your family business will say about you in the future as you prepare for and set the path for ‘your new season’.

Susan Kaye is an experienced counsellor, family mediator and family business adviser. Susan specialises in multi-generational relationships, conflict management, family and family business Values and Visions; she designed the ‘Preparing for a New Season’ process and works with leaders (and their spouses) of family businesses as they confront the changes succession brings.

Susan Kaye is Managing Director of The Challenge of Excellence


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