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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