Dear Ira,

Right now I’m a university student and I will be graduating in a year. My dad runs his own businesses in Mexico and they have been very successful. The problem is, he is not capable of teaching me how to run them. He is the type of person that has very little patience and will get angry at anyone for anything, even small things like moving a calculator from one place in the desk, to another place of the same desk (I’m not kidding). My sister already graduated and tried to work for him and failed. She decided to look for another job. The problem was that he expected her to magically know everything there was to know about the businesses without him teaching her anything, and for her to start making decisions. Of course it doesn’t work that way. The employees wouldn’t tell her what to do because they had their own jobs and didn’t know what responsibilities to give her, and my dad would just tell her to get involved in everything and check everything in the businesses (whatever that means). I also have a little brother that just started university, but my dad is always saying that my brother can’t run the businesses either because he doesn’t care about them and he is irresponsible.

In the end, my dad, along with my mom, have come to the conclusion that I’m the only hope of the family businesses. They always tell me that I’ll have to be the head of the businesses and somehow integrate my brother and my sister. This has also created problems between us because it is obvious to everyone that my dad has a preference towards me, and my brother and sister feel my dad hates them (which, unfortunately, might be the case). The sibling rivalry is not a big problem though, I know I’ll be able to solve that. My main concern is that once I graduate, my dad expects me to do what he has been doing for almost 40 years without any coaching. I have already told him that he’ll need to teach me what he does, how he talks to important clients, how to make decisions, etc. and he says he will, but I know he expects me to arrive knowing everything. And the thing is, he never liked school and he never finished high school, so it’s not so much that he doesn’t want to teach me, it’s that he does not know how to teach me. Of course there is more to the story, but it would be too long to write, so I’m just giving the basic and most important details here. I feel that I am losing my time studying Finance at the university because they are just teaching me how to be an employee and basic finance stuff. I’m not learning anything about running a company, making decisions, negotiating with clients, etc. So basically, I need to know how to run multiple businesses that have relationships with companies in France, Colombia, and the United States before I graduate. What advise can you give me? I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to teach myself how to run a business before I graduate, but I don’t know where to start. Could you recommend me some books to read, documentaries to watch, or classes to take?

Thank you so much for your time,

Need to Lead (and Learn)

Dear Need to Learn,

They say the best way to learn something is to teach it, and in your case, you may need to teach the teacher how to teach. You both may end up learning quite a bit.

You need to take the lead in this situation, defining the rules of engagement. Tell your father that you would like to join the business for a 1 year trial run, with a goal of learning all that it takes to run the company EVENTUALLY. Explain that you currently don’t even know what you need to know, and what you don’t know, and that you will spend 2 months shadowing him and other managers, with no job responsibilities. (Both these situations should be paid, and be as serious a commitment as a job.) You are there to create a job description and career track for yourself, able to delve into any area of the company, meet with customers, suppliers, expert advisors. The result of all this will be information gathering, finding your most effective role and path forward, and navigating a realistic mentor/mentee relationship with your father, as well as from all others that have perspectives and data that you need. The 2 month shadowing would create the job description for the 1 year trial period. The trial period would equip you both to have an informed discussion about your career, that you now can’t have.

You might also consider starting a book study group with your father and some key managers, where you all read a business book and discuss it, maybe facilitated by a talented local business professor. This will be a good education for all, and build a good team spirit for you, your father, and the key managers. You can ask for recommendations on books, but Good to Great by Jim Collins would be a good start. Another good one is The Idea Driven Organization, by Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder.

This may be a challenge for your father, if he is not experienced or confident as a student, but you can insist that to make your partnership with him a success, you need to prepare, including preparing him, to accept you with a realistic plan.

Once he agrees to this in theory, create a written battle plan / curriculum / time line, that you both sign. Choose a trusted person to oversee this relationship, or perhaps a small board of advisors, that could meet with you quarterly, to discuss an agenda of business and family business issues.

As far as a good book about family business, to get a better grasp on what should happen, and what often does, but shouldn’t happen, I’d recommend Succeeding Generations by Ivan Lansberg.

As I said in the beginning, this plan involves you taking the bull by the horns. But that could be a lot less risky than not having a grip, once you get on.

Please let me know how this is progressing (hopefully it will) or what happened when you suggested it.

About the Author

The Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley is a resource for families in business, and one giant aspect of that is the next generation, working its way into leadership; often discovering how to operate as a sibling or cousin team; assuming the risks in a more competitive market than ever before; needing to innovate and evolve to avoid failure; and realize how to achieve that magic state of work/life balance, combined with doing what you love, as well as using your unique talents, different than what your family has known before. This page will be a place for you to connect, explore, and express yourself in the local and global communities of the Nxt Gen of family business.

Ira Bryck is president of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley (in Western Mass). The center provides a learning community for family and closely held companies, which include dinner forums, confidential roundtables, and varied workshops; and produces the website and advice column, Dear Ira: Fresh Air and Cold Water for the Perplexed Business Family. Ira confers with entrepreneurial families on an array of usual and unusual challenges. He is the author of three plays about life in family business, including A Tough Nut to Crack, based on his 17 years in his family's 4th generation childrenswear business on Long Island, where he served simultaneously in every role from president to tailor. The plays have been performed internationally over 100 times. Ira hosts The Western Mass Business Show on WHMP in Northampton Mass, where he interviews business owners and expert advisors about what inspires them, keeps them awake, helps them succeed, and makes them unique.

For more info, contact Ira Bryck at 413 835 0810 or

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