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Bridging Generational Divide in Family Businesses Through Communication

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Bridging Generational Divide in Family Businesses Through Communication

Recognising the importance of intergenerational communication, having shared spaces and creating opportunities for interaction can go a long way in facilitating better understanding and trust among family members across generations

It was a life of struggles for the family when my grandfather died unexpectedly at a young age, my 85-year-old grandmother recalls. “Suddenly, we had nothing. However, we never spoke about it outside. We did not ask anyone for anything. Our lifestyle did not change when we had nothing. And, it has not changed now when we have everything again.”

Those words, spoken casually while I watched The Crown season 5 on Netflix and she went about her daily routine, subconsciously made me feel connected to our lineage and family values. My mind wandered to the challenge many family businesses face in the 21st century. Myriad options, gadgets in the palm, shorter attention spans and intolerance for listening to anything that may not seem of direct interest have caused a divide between the younger and the older generation that seems insurmountable.

Many parents in family businesses pay little attention to interaction with children in their formative years due to their busy schedules and the business demands on their time. Soon, as the children reach their teenage years, in many cases, they feel an emotional void and disconnect from their parents. The older generation also finds it hard to cope with the children’s needs, thoughts and desires. They realise there is little to talk about except coordinating with them for their basic needs. In addition, the widening gap between shared generational experiences also leads to weakening intergenerational bonds.

A second-generation family business leader rued, “The way my brother and I see our business, the emotional connection that we have with it, the desire to uphold the legacy of the business that our father left for us, is simply lacking in our children. They see the business as a money-making machine without wanting to nurture it adequately. We do not know how and from where to start bridging the gap!”

How can the intergenerational gaps be bridged? Here are a few practical solutions that may be considered.

Shared Spaces: This should be the first step towards understanding each other and communicating more. The senior generation can make rules that evolve into traditions over time, such as having dinner together, having a single television at home, eating breakfast together on Sundays with extended family members and celebrating important days together. Sharing space, time and experiences with each other results in better bonding and communication.

Creating opportunities to share: Whether a family lives in the same house or not, communication opportunities need to be created if they do not happen organically. The family must establish formal mechanisms to facilitate dialogue among members on family and business issues in an environment of non-judgement, trust and openness. Starting with a few planned meetings, the family can eventually form a family council (FC). All members of the family become members of the family council, including the children, as they reach their teenage years.

Some families go a step ahead and form the next-generation members’ young council (YC) to facilitate communication among the next-generation members. They have monthly scheduled video calls where they all connect informally and share their challenges and learnings in work and personal life.

Championing communication: When communication between family members is not great, there is often a fear of saying something that might alienate others further. Someone from the family needs to take the lead in understanding how relationships between generations play a crucial role in building legacy, harmony and business growth. A person with empathy, who is willing and able to take everyone along, can champion the engagement and, if needed, engage an advisor (or coach).

Communication is not what is said or intended but what the other person receives. We often underestimate the effort that must be put into learning how to communicate effectively. Families sometimes engage with a coach to learn and practise communicating effectively with the help of communication tools. These sessions also allow the family members to connect deeply.


The unconscious opportunities to interact, bond and build a legacy gradually disappear. Bridging gaps between generations, even intra-generational, is vital to perpetuating family businesses. Family business guru John L. Ward writes in his book Perpetuating the Family Business: 50 Lessons Learned From Long Lasting, Successful Families in Business: When one firm was sold to a large conglomerate amid a great deal of family turmoil, its CEO was asked by a reporter why the family had failed to carry on with its business, “Three reasons,” he answered, “Communication. Communication. Communication.” What he meant, of course, was “Lack of communication. Lack of communication. Lack of communication”.

Therefore, business families, do not take communication for granted, or ignore it at your own peril. And, if you (business families) have to take one resolution for the New Year, let it be to communicate more! On that note, here’s wishing all the readers a very Happy and Prosperous New Year.

(Nupur Pavan Bang is Associate Director, Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business, India, and Simran Senani is Senior Consultant, BAF Consultants, India. Views are personal.)


URL : https://www.outlookindia.com/business/bridging-generational-divide-in-family-businesses-through-communication-news-251014