An old father wishing to retire summons his descendants to announce how his properties will be distributed. His plans consist of transferring his businesses, achieved after a long and laborious existence, while he is still alive. The beneficiaries will be his children, who -he is convinced- will continue his legacy and further expand it. In doing so, he acts according to his own principles, respecting tradition and trying to being fair to each but without prior asking his successors about their wishes and aspirations. To his surprise, he learns that one of his daughters rejects her assigned inheritance and rather prefers to look after her ailing father. Shaken by the news, he reacts angrily and not only strips her of everything but even expels her out of the family domains. Does the plot sound familiar? It is, as you have correctly guessed, the beginning of King Lear, one of the greatest tragedies of Shakespeare. However, similar episodes happen more than expected at succession times of many other family businesses.
I wonder if, when you first read Shakespeare’s play, you judged King Lear’s attitude towards Cordelia, his selfless daughter, as an overreaction, as I did. He mistakes ingratitude for generosity, an error that subsequently causes a tragic sequence ending in his ruin and solitude. His other two daughters, who pretended to respect his desires and to care about him, leave him in abject poverty. Interestingly, I have found that some business founders –few, I hope- think that an offspring’s refusal to work at the family business is a sign of ingratitude.
I remember an unfortunate fellow who, on finishing his MBA, declined his father’s job proposal and explored other opportunities in consultancy. His father not only opposed him but even tried to dissuade potential recruiters from hiring him. A cruel action, but his parents believed they were doing their best in helping their son’s future; an example of “King Lear’s blindness syndrome”. Succession is a key time at family businesses and experience shows that parents should not take for granted what their descendants want to do as professionals.
Property and management are two spheres that are often confounded in the realm of family businesses. Company heirs should ideally decide whether to unite both functions or leave executive positions for the more competent and willing. At the same time, second and ulterior generations of family businesses may do well in collecting outside managerial experiences before they rejoin the family company.
One of the enjoyable characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy is represented by The Fool, the only one that dares to tell the truth about family matters openly, even defiantly, to his King. Strangely enough, Lear listens to him but is not moved enough to reverse his original, mistaken decisions. The Fool plays the role of best advisors to top management. In Lear’s age, only jesters could advise objectively and independently. Fortunately, organizations have become more democratic and advisors do not need to pretend they are foolish to say what they believe, or do they?
(Photo: I took this at the river banks near Sibauma beach, RN Brazil)