In a previous article, I provided an overview of the “failure to launch” syndrome, including its causes and potential implications for family-owned businesses. In this article, as a lawyer who has worked closely with family businesses, I offer seven suggestions to consider for families who are struggling with an adult child who works at the company and has not yet launched. In doing so, I encourage families to consider the wisdom shared by an anonymous source who observed that “no matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, you can still turn around.”
Step 1: Recognize that trying to change an adult child’s behavior won’t be easy. The expression “Rome wasn’t built in a day” can be a helpful reminder that important work can take time, be difficult and be filled with setbacks along the way. However, it is equally as important to remember the flip side of this expression so thoughtfully expressed in the ancient Chinese proverb that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” While Rome may not have been built in a single day, work was being done every day. Be prepared for challenges but also know that every day you will be taking steps to help your child.
Step 2: Find help. The challenges that your adult child, your family and your business have in front of you are complex and interconnected. Your family might best benefit from working with a team of qualified professionals, which could include your lawyer, a capable family business consultant or even, at times, a therapist with specialized expertise to assist with the particular issues you are dealing with. Be prepared to try new strategies. As Albert Einstein observed, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Step 3: Seek to understand the underlying cause of the “failure to launch.” I believe that learning about the underlying causes of your adult child’s “failure to launch” is a critical first step in determining the kind of help your child needs to create a rewarding and productive life. Be prepared to take a close look at what your role, in and outside of the company, has been in contributing to your child’s behavior.
A psychiatrist named Murray Bowen developed a useful approach to helping individuals address a variety of challenges, including personality disorders, addiction and interpersonal conflict. He based his approach on the premise that our behaviors could be best understood — and improved upon — by understanding a family’s unique dynamics and how the individual actions of one family member impact other family members. A child’s struggles are often the result of a family’s culture and dynamics, of their family’s “system.” Be prepared to change your behavior to help your child, your family and your business.
Step 4: Develop a plan of action. The importance of developing and sticking with a plan cannot be overemphasized. A plan can help serve as a road map, helping ensure that decisions are made in a consistent and principled fashion. Plans can also help ensure that all parties are coordinated and what resources are needed. A plan will also allow progress to be measured, which can motivate continuing efforts. Put your plan in writing so it is clear and agreed upon by the relevant parties.
Step 5: Communicate your plan. Dealing with adult children whose performance in a family business is sub-standard cannot only create stress and interpersonal conflict but can also cause irreparable damage to business operations and impair a family’s wealth. Consider letting your child know that, going forward: (1) a job description with performance expectations will be developed and used to evaluate their performance; (2) “special privileges” will be curtailed and that they will be treated similarly to non-family employees; and (3) failure to adhere to the newly articulated expectations will result in consequences, including, ultimately, termination from employment.
Step 6: Begin to act. It can be emotionally challenging to enforce consequences for a family member’s poor behavior, but allowing your child to fail can build character and teach important lessons. I believe that appropriate consequences for bad behavior should be established, communicated and adhered to. There may come a time when terminating a family member’s employment from the family business is beneficial. First, provide plenty of feedback and consider other possible solutions such as a demotion or pay cut. Consider discussing how your child’s interests might be better suited for a different position or offer to help your child find that job. Pay attention to how your plan is working and update it as necessary.
Step 7: Identify professional resources when needed. Notwithstanding your best efforts, your adult child may still need the protection afforded by traditional wealth management tools. Discuss these options with your advisors. For example, trusts can help protect a family member’s assets from a variety of claims. Choose a trustee with the judgment and discipline to serve your child’s best interests.
Every parent knows that raising children is not always easy. And business-owning parents should understand that “failure to launch” is a common challenge that many others have successfully faced. Start with the recognition that all family members need care and support but, perhaps, less “being taken care of.” My hope is that you seek to develop a thoughtful approach that will give your struggling family member the best chance to become a thriving adult.
by Scott Friedman, a business lawyer, author and co-founder of Varia Ventures LLC.
Originally published in Forbes