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The Good Earth

September 6, 2018

The last words of Pearl Buck’s 1932 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Good Earth could have been written in any generation for any generation of family business owners:

And he stooped and took up a handful of the soil and he held it and he muttered,
“If you sell the land, it is the end.”
And his two sons held him, one on either side, each holding his arm, and he held tight in his hand the warm loose earth. And they soothed him and they said over and over, the elder son and the second son,
“Rest assured, our father, rest assured. The land is not to be sold.”
But over the old man’s head they looked at each other and smiled.

Children’s values often are not the same as their parent’s, and this is especially so when a child works in the family business. Some children crave working with their mother or father and bring the business to new heights. However, some do not but they eventually find themselves doing so anyway. The reasons are not that important, what is important is the lack of shared values. To the parent, the business is like another child; to those children it is what they do because they lacked the drive or ambition to do something else, or because their compensation needs are far greater than they could earn elsewhere.

Whatever, the parents who are exceptionally bright, as evidenced by their ability to build a business that was the means of the family’s support, turn blind eyes to the child’s shortcomings hoping they will have a sudden transformation and take the business to levels the parent wasn’t able to or just didn’t. As long as the parent is involved or is living, any thoughts of selling or liquidating the business is anathema though it is usually a silent desire of the child.

As a consultant in many business’ succession plans I usually can recognize early on how the children feel. The issue is to help establish a plan that will work. What I do is to try to offer a plan acceptable to parent and child while also suggesting an alternative using supporting people that could be part of a team that could run the company. Then I suggest a method of implementing the alternative without being intrusive or seeming to supersede the client’s primary (though unsaid) wishes which becomes an exercise balancing finesse with tactics.

The Good Earth’s closing words express the convergence of conflicting desires as clear as it can be said.

This blog was precipitated by a discussion with a very bright 12 year old cousin who was reading the book and I mentioned that I loved the last page and her follow up note when she finished the book asking for my perspective on how I interpreted the ending. The book and its ending are still as fresh as when I first read it eons ago. Check it out!

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