After graduating from UNC Kenan-Flagler’s MBA program in May, I returned to work at my family’s real estate company as planned. I was full of eagerness and very high hopes, but a few months in I found myself still struggling with some of the same issues I left behind two years earlier. But I wasn’t struggling alone, and I had a good feeling that attending the UNC Kenan-Flagler Family Business Forum with my parents would help all of us – personally and professionally.
I never pass up an opportunity to come back to my alma mater, but I also thought that bringing my parents to experience the learning environment I had been immersed in for the last two years would make my education seem more real to them.
Dean Doug Shackelford kicked off the Family Business Forum with a broad overview of estate planning. And while my parents already knew some of what he discussed, they picked up a few new ideas as well. It was a great warm-up that got everyone thinking and comfortable with being back in the classroom.
After a brief intermission (with snacks!), we settled back into our seats to hear Steve Miller present some of his groundbreaking research on developing next-generation talent in family businesses. He started out by engaging the audience, then showed us a chart outlining some of his findings. I soon noticed my mom fiddling with her cell phone – but she wasn’t being rude, she was trying to get to her camera app to take a photo of the chart! As Steve elaborated on his research and findings (which I had already heard about in my family business class), a voice inside me was again saying, “yes, this is exactly what we are going through!”
My dad has had retirement in his sights for years, but now that my formal real estate education is over and I’m back to working full time, we are all realizing how hard it is for an entrepreneur to hand over his responsibilities. In one of my family business classes, we learned that some of the same things that make an entrepreneur successful can inhibit the transition to the next generation – a lesson I’ll never forget. Steve explained that one of the most important things in developing next-generation talent is giving them real responsibility and accountability. And although my dad and I have communicated openly and often about this transition, Steve’s findings gave us a clear road map supported by years of research drawing on decades of family business experiences.
Transitions are never quick or easy, but communication and education can help. The Family Business Forum gave me the opportunity to share some of the lessons I learned in class with my parents – in a classroom setting, straight from the mouths of leading industry experts – which has already proven invaluable for my family and our business.
By Kathryn Howlett (MBA ’14)
The Family Enterprise Center prepares next generation family business students for leadership and ownership in family firms.