Lessons on Letting Go

By Lance Woodbury on April 3, 2017

     The senior generation in a family business faces a difficult transition when deciding to turn the business over to the next generation. I have seen this transition happen as early as when the older generation is in their 50’s or as late as in their 80’s, but the simple fact remains: The work and activities that have for decades formed and defined who they are must be handed to someone else if the business is to continue. When I consider family business members who have successfully navigated this handoff, three lessons about the younger generation come to mind:

Lesson One: They will do the things I did, but differently, and it’s ok. The core functions you perform today in the operation, such as making daily operating decisions, managing people and prioritizing tasks will still get done, but they will likely be done very differently. Whether you are transitioning to family or key non-family employees, the fact is that the next person has their own set of experiences, a different personality, alternative strategies, unique ideas and their own mentors. This combination is what makes them distinct, which will mean they approach some things in their own way. Letting go requires looking at what they accomplish, and not getting too hung up in how they go about their work.

Lesson Two: They will choose to do things I did not – or would not – do, and it’s ok. When the next generation returns to the family business, they are often full of ideas and energy to transform the business. Their drive can often clash with the senior generation’s ideas and experiences, who can become fearful of potential failure. Letting go requires allowing – perhaps even encouraging – the next generation to explore new strategies, while being clear on how much risk you are willing to allow. If they are not allowed to try, to learn, to fail and to succeed, they will be ill-prepared to assume your role and responsibilities.

Lesson Three: I must trust the decisions they make, and these decisions will be ok. At some point, the senior generation must trust the next generation has “the right stuff” to make it through the uncertainty and volatility of the agriculture industry. Letting go requires realizing that the younger generation doesn’t have all the answers, but has the right values, thoughtfulness, working relationships, temperament, discipline and decision-making skills to move forward. The alternative to having such trust is to a) find someone else to take over, which generally takes significant time and involves family turmoil, or b) discontinue or sell the business, which involves another significant set of financial and family challenges.

     Letting go is undoubtedly a struggle, but seeing the next generation take the business to new heights offers a just reward.