Paul Dunn and Joe Knutson

The relationship between father and son, and between father and son-in-law is a process.  It starts out mentoring, attempting to teach them all of the important lessons you have learned in life.

Much, if not most, of that learning is assimilated through simply working together, where the father sets the example.  The sons then pick it up as they go.

At some point, however, the father has to know when it is time to step aside, when it is time to turn over the reins to the next generation, to enable them to develop the confidence of running things on their own.

Have you ever noticed that when you are not driving the car you are not nearly as cognizant of your surroundings, and if you are then asked to drive back, you have difficulty doing so, as you weren’t really paying attention on the way there?

The same applies to running a business.  Until the boys are in the driver’s seat calling the shots, they will never fully embrace, nor understand the implications of running a business on their own.

Not only that, founders of a business are analogous to the big oak tree.  They tower over the smaller oaks, robbing them of the direct sunlight they need to grow, while at the same time hogging all of the moisture out of the ground.

Or, if you will, founders can easily snuff all the oxygen out of a room simply by walking into it, and without even sniffing.

It was 15 months ago that we decided to turn the business over to the boys.  So far (knock on wood), it’s working!  And we didn’t do it by the book either.

Peter Drucker, in his book simply titled Management, recommended that the leader of a company not be empowered to choose their successor.  His reasoning is that subconsciously, the leader would tend to pick a successor that would not be as strong as he/she were, hoping that eventually the next in command would fail, thus assuring the legacy of the previous president.

Perhaps that works in Fortune 500 companies.  We chose not to follow that in our business.

Another management principle that we chose to ignore is one that Malcolm Forbes of Forbes Magazine suggested.  He had a number of sons, all of whom had expressed interest in inheriting Malcolm’s mantle.  He strongly recommended that in succession planning you pick one successor to run operations, and then let the chips fall where they may.  If family members’ feelings get hurt in the process, so be it.  Consider it pruning the fig tree.  He suggests in the long run it will cover a multitude of evils.

We picked two – a son and son-in-law.  We made them co-presidents, and established a system where their ownership would be 50-50.  Their skills are complimentary to each other.  They’ve not had a significant difference with each other since they took over.  Nor have they been complacent.  They continue to push the business forward.  The only downside is their success has further compounded my insecurities.

The icing on the cake is that they still welcome the old man when he shows up.  In fact, they complain a little if I don’t show up often enough.  And for me, it has been liberating not to carry the full load, nor to have to concern myself with the details.

More importantly, it is gratifying to see the next generation of horses, locked together in tandem, as they pull this buggy forward in today’s tumultuous markets.


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  1. Lorraine says:

    What books can not encompass is the prayer and heart that goes into a transition. Often the passing of a business from one generation to the next is fraught with conflict and hard feelings. If the plan is put into place with open communication and a spirit of love and helpfulness, both sides can thrive. Our transition was less than textbook as well, and to be honest, our relationship is stronger than before. It takes wisdom on the part of the parent to know when to step back and “let’m go” as well as when to know when to offer a helpful hand, a shoulder to cry on or advice. Maybe it’s time to write a new chapter- parents who transition well, and the kids who appreciate the mentoring….

  2. Ed Taylor says:

    You could write your own book about transitioning business leadership and then you would have “gone by the book.” There are many books that would differ from each other on this and other topics so it is a good idea to get all the information from good sources and then make the decision that best fits the business, or any situation, that needs to be made. Without being a part of the management of this business it appears to have been a good decision. Just like a good husband and wife team complement each others strengths and weaknesses, a good leadership pair can operate in similar fashion. One may be more creative and visionary while the other may be more detail oriented to make sure the day to day operations run smoothly. I think the main thing to remember in your example is that both leaders are of equal value to the company but not necessarily the same and may not get the same acknowledgements from co-workers, customers or peers.

    • peter says:

      I’m hoping they are indifferent as to whether one gets more acknowledgements than the other – as it very well could happen. Fact of the matter is, the one is much more of a back room manager, and the other more of a front door manager. It works well!

  3. Audrey Frank Gliege says:

    With reference to the oak tree, one of my favorite books is “Will You Still be my Daughter? ” by Carol Lynn Pearson. It’s a fable of a mama oak experiencing life – dropping that little acorn, then sheltering, teaching, admiring it, but worrying as it rolls away to make its own shadow, presses its own roots down to find water, looks at life away from mom’s shadow … will you still be my daughter? Of course, says the ‘little’ grown up tree standing by her -AND friends.
    This is a little ‘sappy’ I know (the female gender will relate, however) but it would seem Peter, your family roots have run deep and though the branches of these two owner/sons will spread different from yours, you will always be their father – AND friend. My wish for you all at Christmas!

  4. Leila Bolster says:

    Peter, I think that books only work for the people writing them. What you are experiencing with your son and son-in-law is the result of a lifetime of getting along. Not everyone has that kind of relationship with others.


  5. Al Hiebert says:

    Management and leadership books try to establish principles of prudence.

    Besides biblical ethics principles of God’s universal moral law, I’m strongly committed to the principles of individual differences and situational leadership. No two people are the same and they’re both glad of that. Likewise, no two situations are the same and so wise choices need to be made in the complex of the personalities and the situations involved.

    Over the years I’ve observed many generational transitions in business and ministry. All of these have involved much discussion, reflection, give & take. Family businesses clearly work much differently than other organizations. Inheritances make a major difference. Rarely have I seen two or three “co-presidents” arrangements work for more than 2 or 3 years. In one family business the eldest 2 brothers (of a family of 5 siblings) exchanged president & vice-president roles every 3 to 5 for some 20 years before one bought out the other. In another family the eldest son served as president for some 15-20 years and then a younger brother took over. In another family the eldest son-in-law served as president for some 10-15 years and then sold his shares to a younger brother who had led a smaller subsidiary for most of that time.

    I see Peter Drucker’s counsel as appropriate for corporations and ministries.

    Different strokes for different folks.

    • peter says:

      Al, it appears you made a study of a number of things in your day! Good observations. One that appears to have worked would be Smucker’s of Orrville, Ohio.

      It has worked for 15 months, and that in itself, is satisfactory. If at some point in the future, the “boys” decide that they want to make other arrangements, that will be in there ball park, not mine, as I’m in the process of divesting myself of my voting stock.

      Guess that would indicate that I’ve got a lot of confidence in these two “boys”.!!

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