A Business Owner’s Key Mistake – Failure to Organize & Plan

by Donald J. Jonovic, Ph.D.

Think about these two statements I recently heard uttered by a business owner and his successor:

The Successor: “I can’t tell you where the days go. I’ve got a list of customers  as long as my arm to keep in contact with, and I’ve been trying to make five cold calls a week. But production problems in the plant always keep me in the office on days I plan to make calls.
“I’m also writing a computer program for Dad to help handle quotes (which he’s way behind on, by the way), but I never seem to have enough time at the computer to make progress on it…”

The Boss: “He never makes sales calls. For that matter, he’s hardly ever out of the office. What I need is some help. I’m buried in unquoted jobs and he spends his time in front of his computer, on the phone with his girl, or gassing with the guys in the plant.
“Frankly, I don’t know what he does all day. The kid sweats through every day, but Dad doesn’t know what “he does.” Sound familiar?

No surprise if it does. For the family company, this kind of situation is about as predictable as cold wind off a glacier.

There are some specialists around who would attribute these problems between The Boss and the successor the inevitable results of father-son conflict, or the outgrowth of birth order, or some other phenomena only discernible through ink blot tests.
Maybe they’re right.

But I’ve been wrestling with these questions for almost 20 years, and every year my belief grown stronger that the causes of family business disagreements are failures of organization and planning, not psychological undercurrents among the family and key managers.

Sure, the successor may have this driving ambition to surpass the Old Man. True, Dad may be feeling some disquieting sense of his increasing irrelevance. The whole conflict might even be attributable to toilet training. But, let’s try for a minute longer to work this problem out in the real world instead of the `id’ and `superego’.

Reading the two statements, did you get any specific sense of what the successor’s job actually was?

Think about it. The successor thinks he does a lot, and The Boss has no idea what that is. Dad expects his son to be out making calls. That’s the “job.” Period.

The successor agrees sales is part of the job, but he also feels responsible for productivity in the plant, and believes it’s his job to free Dad up from the pile of quotes turning is desk into a groaning board.

These latter two responsibilities take up a majority of the kid’s time, at the expense of sales. Yet, as far as Dad is concerned, he has no business in software programming or production. He should be selling.

Who’s right?

Nobody… and everybody. Talk about a situation primed for misunderstanding, disagreement, confusion, frustration and conflict!

So let’s bring it home. Are management jobs “real” in your company?  Think about it. Not so simple, is it?

Well, before any business owner can just justly complain about lack of performance from key managers, he or she should ask a key question:  “What, specifically, is the performance I want from them — and do they agree?”

The important word is “specific,” and it means numbers, percentages, dollars, units — performance measures that can be put in black and white for everybody to see, and agree to.

Furthermore, before any key manager or successor can justly complain about lack of appreciation or delegation from The Boss, he or she should also ask a key question: “What, specifically, am I supposed to be getting done, and does The Boss agree?”

To get back to the unfortunate pair I quoted at the beginning, Dad and the successor need to agree which of the three objectives — increased sales, greater productivity, or a better quote system — are the successor’s responsibility.

Then, they need to agree on exactly what “increased,” “greater,” and “better” really mean.

The cure for organizational “schizophrenia” isn’t a prolonged session on the couch. We just have to get in touch, and stay in touch with reality.

And what that takes, mostly, is some clean discussion (for once), using a few very sharp pencils.