Hubler For Business Families

Overcoming the Technological Divide Between Generations

By recognizing generational differences early on, entrepreneurs and generations following in the family business can work together and multiply their success.

Key Takeaways:
  • Your generational differences, when managed respectfully, can be an asset to the company in creating new and innovative ways of doing things that are win-win versus win-lose.
  • The key to managing and resolving generational differences is understanding each other and listening.
  • Resolving generational differences also requires both generations to speak the truth without fear or judgment, criticism or blame.
  • In resolving generational differences, it is important to have a reciprocal commitment to everyone's success.

As we discussed last time, older generations tend to think technology has ruined our capacity to reason and communicate. Meanwhile, younger generations look at boomer family business leaders and think they are totally out of touch with how the world works today. Here we'll look at practical ways to resolve the conflicts.

A typical question in hiring and remediation is, "Is the problem attitude or aptitude, behavior or knowledge?" In a nutshell, I believe that the way to overcome the challenge between the generations is to help each generation realize that technology is a means, not a behavior. Technology is ordinarily a tool, not necessarily a lifestyle. By recognizing generational differences, the entrepreneur and the next generation in the family business can not only work together, but they can also multiply their success.

How? I will offer a few examples and then summarize them as general rules.

Is it demeaning?
I know of a father who started a professional business and wanted his son to continue the practice of polishing the company car as something symbolic and meaningful to the practice. His son thought it demeaning and inappropriate. It was a constant source of conflict.

In another example, a company president owned a packing house business and had three adult children entering into management positions at the firm. The president constantly said they needed to have "shit on their shoes" to understand the business fully.

I am also currently working with a family in which the mother and daughter are disagreeing about compensation. Mom says, "I did not need this much money at this stage in my career, and I can't imagine why my daughter needs so much." The daughter needs and wants certitude from her mother about what to expect in terms of compensation. She is a person who prefers structure, organization and predictability. Her mother, on the other hand, prefers flexibility and keeping her options open. Right now, they are personalizing these differences. They blame each other for the problem.

Is it counterproductive?
We have entered and possibly already passed the age of email. Technology evolves so rapidly that now tweets and phone text messages are usurping "traditional" emails - a form of communication that became mainstream itself less than 20 years ago. Now personal hashtag (#) accounts, premium Facebook, messaging apps, "stickers," DingDong, Skype, GIF Chat, forums and dozens of other approaches make sharing information with anyone around the world easy, ubiquitous and instantaneous. The question is, does technology overwhelm the communication function?

Most of my family business clients lack the writing sophistication needed to express emotional nuances through emails. This causes miscommunication and misunderstanding in family businesses when emails are used to communicate about critical issues. A recent segment on National Public Radio"s "All Things Considered" featured a company that, as a research project, banned the use of email for five business days. Participants initially reported feeling uncomfortable with the change, but gradually the employees enjoyed the opportunity to move about the office and connect - face-to-face - with others. They also reported that communication improved and morale appeared higher.

In my own experience with the Miller family, the oldest of three sons in a construction business had a bad reputation - a serious problem of frequently texting and spending too much time on his cell phone. To alleviate the situation, the non-tech-savvy company president, who was the son's father, began to reprimand his son. The father's lack of commitment to technology escalated the tension between them to the point of threatening the son's future in the company as well as the company's future prospects. The son had been urging his father to replace an old surveying system with a GPS system, but the father was reluctant to do so. It wasn't until the father relented that the son was able to take the lead on using the GPS program.

In this instance, the opinion of one generation about the habits of the other caused defensiveness and problems that cut right to the core of the business. Relenting on the part of the father was not my preferred solution, because the issue of trust still had to be earned, and the son's ideas were not accepted on their own merits. Generational differences prompted personality differences that got in the way of legitimate problem solving.

Does it make a business difference?

The Stuart family offers an example where technology has the baby-boomer father scratching his head. The Stuarts run a manufacturing business, and the oldest daughter, Drew (a millennial), has a sales background and was made company president in 2012. In her new role, Drew regularly uses social media to network and to support the sales functions of the business. She has adeptly used LinkedIn to prospect, develop leads and find new customers. Initially, Drew's father found it difficult to accept that marketing could be done this way. But he respected her opinion, and he is now a complete convert, because the program produced a 25 percent increase in sales last year.

This issue also affected one of my favorite clients, the Perkins family. Here the father recruited his son to return to the company and promised the son that he would eventually take over the business and run the company. The son was bright, competent, capable and ambitious. Within a few years, the son had accumulated numerous ideas about how to improve the company and how to bring innovation and increased profitability to the company.

Although the father loved his son and admired his skills, he resisted at every turn the son's suggestions for improvements. Eventually their father-son relationship was in jeopardy, and that is when I was brought in to fix their relationship.

We re-established the father-son relationship by uniting them around a common vision for the business. Once the common vision was in place, the father understood that for the sake of the business he needed to embrace his son's suggestions for technological innovation in the company.

What has emerged for me, as I observe my successful family business clients, is that their commitment to creating win-win solutions take the best of each generation's ideas and use them to create a third or fourth way of solving generational differences that neither generation could have done themselves. To do so takes candor and requires kindness, care and respect. The benefits of collaboration, in which the older and younger generations work together, are significant for the business. But it is particularly significant for the family relationships.

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