Family Business

Want to lead the business? Get a mentor and rotate through several jobs

March 16, 2013 

You have joined the family business, have had some initial success, and think you might want to run it in the future. So now you are asking yourself: “What are the best ways to prepare for that possibility?” Rotating jobs and getting a mentor are two excellent ways.

A family business I know had three potential leaders in the next generation. They were each still young but had some skills to bring to the business: One was highly analytical, another was a natural salesperson, and the other was an interesting blend of both. All were working in jobs aligned to their strength. Imagine their reaction when I proposed that everyone should rotate one chair to the left.

The three next generation members were mostly excited to learn something new, but from what they had observed of their cousins, they thought it would be a cakewalk.

It did not take long for each to realize how difficult the other’s work was and to gain a higher level of respect for the skill each brought to each role.

The benefits of job rotation are enormous. Not only will the company itself be stronger by having someone who can fill in other roles if need be, it enables to the next generation member to get an in-depth understanding of the function, how it relates to other functions, and how it fits into the overall company strategy.

Once you have spent some time dealing with the headaches of a department, whoever runs that department in the future will not be able to hide their mistakes or lack of performance behind the standard excuse that no one understands how hard it is. Now you do.

But the real benefit is that if someone is going to lead the entire organization, it is always best to have spent some real time being responsible for the performance of the key departments – even if you don’t have the natural skills for it.

If you are under 30, an accounting major, and sitting comfortably in the accounting department, maybe you should consider a stint in the marketing or service department.

Mentoring is the imparting of skills and knowledge, but also a perspective on the “ins and outs” of how to best run a company. A good mentor will address the personal and professional growth of the mentee, while understanding that work/life balance is hard, especially in a family business.

A great role a mentor can play is to simply be an impartial sounding board. Let’s say you have run into a tricky situation at work that you just can’t seem to figure out. A mentor is someone you can approach to help you think through how to best address the predicament. Equally critical, a mentor will serve to identify weaknesses of the mentee, articulate ways to improve upon them, and point out other opportunities to improve them.

While your father or brother could provide good mentoring, they are not always the best choice. First of all, they are talking to you all the time anyhow! Mentors are typically not in your direct reporting line or related to you.

This way the mentee has an easier time confiding in them, and it makes it easier to accept constructive criticism.

In a family business, some of the best mentors can be leaders in other companies. Many businesses attend industry conferences or belong to industry associations, and have developed relationships with other companies. Another great way to find a mentor is simply identifying someone willing and capable in a local business, or someone recently retired from business.

Another obvious and effective avenue is to simply hire a business coach. These are professionals who are trained or experienced in grooming up-and-coming business leaders.

They will typically have extensive work experience and education, and can either be specific to your industry or, more often, a well-rounded background in many facets of business.

The most essential aspect of getting a mentor, however, is to actually get one. Some people who are smart and have had some success are reluctant to ask for help for fear it may lower their image of perfection or being capable. Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Hewlett, Packard, Oprah and numerous Nobel Prize winners all did. Shouldn’t you?

Henry Hutcheson is a nationally recognized family business speaker, author and consultant in Raleigh. He can be reached at

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