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Cleary Gull

From Basketball to Family Business: Are We Letting Children Fail?

In my last post I reflected on the opportunity to be a coach for my daughter’s grade school basketball team, and the insight it provided into the dynamics between parents and children in a family-owned business. The experience brought into focus my own experiences working for my father and the complexities he had to navigate.  I was also fortunate enough to be coached by my father when I played grade basketball, and then fifteen years later I had the wonderful opportunity to work for two different companies my father founded and operated. In basketball, I was a fairly competent little point guard, but afraid to shoot. In the business, I was a fairly competent sales person, given a chance to start a new office from the ground up. In both cases, I still recall with great warmth my father’s willingness to trust me. His confidence in me has been a gift my entire life. Though, I’ve always acknowledged his positive impact on my life, I haven’t always had the perspective to appreciate how well he navigated the dynamics of our parent/child relationship.

Looking back on my experience working with my father, it’s clear my success in sales can be attributed to watching him, listening to him talk over dinner, and being coached by him in many small ways for many years before he asked me to open a new location for the firm. With my father as a role model, I experienced learning opportunities that others did not. Even though, others in the firm had similar opportunities to open new locations, none of them had the opportunity to watch my father day-to-day when he started the firm. I saw the struggles and trials, and ultimately the perseverance that went into opening the first struggling location, as well as the much more successful second one. Having watched his success, I could anticipate some of the issues and steel myself against some of the struggles I might encounter. I was thankful for the opportunity then, but I better appreciate now how much I owe to my father as a mentor and role-model.

Family business leaders often speak of treating their children the same as other employees; suggesting that everyone fairly earns their role. I’m uncertain that playing field can ever be truly balanced, though I believe we can strive for awareness of what is naturally occurring. This isn’t to suggest the next generation should receive favorable treatment, rather recognize their experience is inherently different from other employees. There are times this may create advantages, but it also means the next generation may be held to different standards than other employees.

Family dynamics in business also leads to emotional struggles that can not be ignored. At one point I was moved from a sales role to a recruiting role, which I perceived as a demotion. My direct supervisor sat me down and explained the move. That evening, I called my father, quite distraught. He was empathetic, but clear. The manager had the authority to make the decision and he fully supported him. I was near tears with frustration. Though, my pride was deeply wounded, I went forward with clear determination. Years later, I had the opportunity to prove myself in the sales role once again. Success in that role the second time around ultimately led to my role as sales manager for the firm.

The end result was positive for me and the firm, but I never appreciated how difficult the process was for my father. Looking back on that time in light of my recent experience coaching my daughter, I have come to appreciate the complexity when the roles of parent and leader come into apparent conflict. Even when the correct decision is made, emotions are not easily ignored.

My experience as my father’s son and my daughter’s father have caused me to reflect on advice frequently given to family business leaders, “You have to let your children fail.” Failure may allow a child to learn resilience and self-reliance, and teach them to take personal ownership of their lives. I appreciate the necessity of the emotional and psychological development gained from failure. Yet I also frequently lament with peers who advise family-owned businesses situations where the next generation were “set-up to fail”, because they had not received adequate preparation or faced unique challenges. I’m not certain we can cleanly determine the difference between allowing our children the chance to fail and failing to prepare them adequately for their opportunity. At some point, it may just be an issue of trust.

On the basketball court it is a little easier. Coaches can give their team opportunities in practice to fail freely and try new things. Then, based on their efforts in practice, coaches can allow similar risk taking in games. But in a family-owned business, it’s always game time and the rest of the team is always watching. The investments of time and money in the business come with different expectations of return on the investment and a different calculus of risk versus reward.

Allowing our children to fail in business is not simple, nor without cost. When my father allowed me to open a new office, the success of which was in no way assured, the investment of time and capital were far less important than the investment of his reputation in making the decision. I could not fully appreciate the implication at the time. So looking back, was he setting me up to fail or allowing me to fail? Perhaps this is not an either/or question. In my case, he took a chance. It paid off. I appreciate the confidence he had in me.

Considering the lessons learned from coaching my daughter’s basketball team, perhaps one successful approach may be progressive opportunities. My father didn’t take one chance on me; he took many chances, with progressively more responsibility and impact. His choice to hire me in an entry-level role was a chance, but the impact of failure would be felt by just him and me. Successes in that role lead to the sales role. My initial failure in sales impacted others, though to a limited degree. More experience and ongoing success lead to another chance. Each time there was a progressively larger impact built from past success. Perhaps my story is a model to answer the paradox suggested above – Do we set children up to fail or do we allow them to fail?  Neither. We give them a chance to succeed – progressively, thoughtfully and with mentorship and coaching.

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Views and comments expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the positions of Cleary Gull or fellow Cleary Gull associates.