Entitlement on Steroids

It’s a curious phenomenon.  For lack of better words, let’s call it “Entitlement on Steroids.”  The entitlement part is pretty clear.  It’s been labeled an epidemic among members of the younger generation in family businesses- and elsewhere- for well more than a decade now.  But it’s the “steroids” part that’s particularly curious; it’s about attitude as well as behavior. It’s a blended phenom that evidences itself in many fashions.  Sometimes it plays out like this with family members in the face of a problem:

“Others will take care of it, it’s not such a big deal, they’re making too much out of it; it will go away by itself; I don’t have to bust my hump to fix things; others will manage the business problems- after all, they’ve always done so.  Just give me a job for the rest of my life.”

Or:

“No problem with debt, we’ll just borrow more and if this bank won’t help us, we’ll find another one; we’re only in default on one covenant.  It’s okay if Dad gives the company a loan.  After all, if we put it below the line, the bank will consider it equity and even give us two to one for it!”

It’s an attitude of noblesse oblige gone awry, of reactions that are cavalier and managed with a blindly relaxed approach. It’s the belief that others will take responsibility.  Almost a bit of up-to-date Alfred E. Newman’s, “What, me worry?”

Our west coast client’s sister puts it this way. “We’re making huge company cuts, tons of layoffs and salary freezes.  We announced them on Thursday morning and that afternoon, my brother, president of the company, heads off in the company plane to his vacation retreat in the mountains and everyone knows about it.”  And when he comes back on Tuesday, he shares his latest batch of photographs with the staff.

Another father with three sons in the business puts it another way.  “I have one son who works 60 plus hours a week and wants to own and run the business.  My other sons have no interest in owning the business and taking on risk, yet want to be reassured they’ll always have a job with the company.”

And another young woman who was recently gifted controlling interest in her father’s business says, “Dad’s 75 years old now, how much longer is he going to live?  Does he really need 3 homes and 4 cars? I know we’ve got to make salary cuts, but I’m not ready to cut my own compensation.  I’ve got 3 kids.  Two are in private school.  This is my business now.  If I can’t make a good living, what am I working for?”

So, what’s going on here?  Where is the depth of commitment?  What is this phenomenon?  It’s more than simple entitlement. Though who ever said that entitlement was simple?  It seems to me that it’s at least a few layers deeper and more complex.

Whatever happened to being responsible and accountable?  When being in the family business was an honor, not a right.  To recognizing that we have an obligation to other stakeholders?  Responsibility is more than just being able to respond, it’s about an obligation to do so.  And accountability is about more than being able to account, it’s about having to account.  How about the great Patek Phillipe watch advertisement that says it all?  “You never really own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”

For sure, parents are at least the partial enablers, having met not simply their scions’ every need, but their every want as well.  But there’s got to be less apparent underlying causes to this.

My friend and colleague, Gerry Donnellan says:

Entitlement is always one part of a larger picture related to one’s development within a family. In most families, the reality principle holds sway: the needs, impulses and desires of the child are shaped to conform to the demands of reality, i.e. the world of other people. In some families, the self-centeredness of the child does not get tempered or molded. These become the “spoiled kids” who never seem to be told “no” in an authoritative, “I mean it” kind of way or held to limits. These kids grow up believing that they can have anything they want, that there are no limits and, most destructive to their self-esteem, there are no consequences to their actions. Whether right or wrong, good or bad, they are not responsible and there is always a way out (or someone will bail them out).

In the family business, as in  Paul’s and David’s example, some family members see no problem with flying off in the private jet for a pleasant weekend, while the business is in crisis. They not only do not act like grown-ups, but they seem to live in a permanent fantasyland, one constructed early on in the family.

So how do we help prevent this from becoming a pattern that continues to yet another generation? Is this failure to see reality and the consequences of one’s actions another/underlying cause of failed succession? We’ve got abundant examples and war stories, lots of clear symptoms and a diagnosis.  Anyone out there with a cure?

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