One of the richest blessings a family business could have is a patriarch or matriarch (I’ll use patriarch for both roles for simplicity in this article) who has moved out of their day-to-day leadership role yet is still available to share their unique wisdom when the need occurs. It was their hard work, passion, wisdom and knowledge that forged the business into what it is today. They have earned the right to be the wise and respected elder who helped build the business “on their watch” and still provide subtle, and often powerful, influence over major decisions.

Tyler don
Founder / Tyler & Associates Management Coaching
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I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the best patriarchs over the years and have observed consistent patterns in their behaviors. They don’t assume a patriarch role just because they are the oldest, own the bulk of the assets or sign all the checks. Patriarchs have earned that title over many years of thoughtful, noble, principled leadership of their company with unquestioned success. They are known throughout the community as a key influencer and the level-headed arbiter of difficult choices.

Once they have transitioned from leader to patriarch, they rarely interject their opinion unless it is requested. They seem to know everything that is happening in the business, even when they’ve been traveling for three weeks without a single phone call back home. Members of the youngest generation respect them more than any other person and can be found asking the patriarch for advice – often when no one else is looking.

Unfortunately, these patriarchs are rare. They are willing to risk sharing their control of the business just at the time they are reaping the rewards of their hard work so subsequent generations can learn while they still have some influence. In my discussions with them, they are humble, reserved and watchful. They tend to say the least in business meetings but garner everyone’s full attention when they speak. They are rarely interrupted by others, rarely challenged and almost always right.

I have met them in the Sacramento and Imperial valleys of California; sawmills in the Appalachians; the hog and grain farms of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana; the dairies of Wisconsin, Idaho and Minnesota; and the cattle ranches and feedlots throughout the Western states. In all these places, patriarchs are incredibly similar. They have the same commanding presence, self-confidence, humility, universal respect throughout the family and community, and the same predisposition for being right regardless of the question or circumstances.


Becoming the patriarch

Some business owners would like to become the patriarch of the family when the timing is appropriate but are uncertain how to make the transition from being the current leader with day-to-day responsibilities to this new role. Here are some suggestions for transitioning from leader to patriarch:

  • Learn to let go of control – and the sooner the better. Whether it’s the decision-making process, the last word in every discussion, the complete control of finances or the day-to-day management of production, you need to give the next generation the chance to prove themselves under your watchful guidance.
  • Stay at 30,000 feet. Don’t micromanage or hover over all production activities.
  • Be a mentor. The best mentors tend to ask a lot of questions – and then question every answer.
  • Share historical examples and anecdotes only when others need help to clarify the current situation, and share them sparingly. Personal stories shared frequently are rarely appreciated for their educational value.
  • Keep learning. In the rapid pace of today’s business cycles, technology and market volatility, you need to have current knowledge to ensure your perspectives are still valid and appropriate. Your input on the use of technology will be more valuable and carry more credibility if you have a sincere interest in how it works and its most appropriate uses.
  • Focus on long-term strategies. Look at trends that point to the future and help the current generation relate their existing strategies to those needed for success far into the future. Use your experience to hone their long-term strategic thinking for generations to come.

Appreciating your patriarch

There are instances where a family business has a wonderful patriarch but fails to adequately tap into their reservoir of wisdom and knowledge. Consider these opportunities to fully utilize them:

  • Have regular meetings with them on at least a quarterly basis. The business may be running smoothly without any significant challenges, but there could still be storm clouds building just over the horizon. They often have instincts and a feel for the current business cycle, markets and attitudes unique to your industry that can be valuable to your long-range strategies. These meetings allow you to share key performance indicators (KPIs) that drive the economic engine of your business, review the success of ongoing strategies and ask for input on major decisions.
  • Engage in regular discussions with the next generations, which would probably include the patriarch’s grandchildren, even the younger ones. The patriarch prepares stories about the business in its infancy, how they overcame challenges and how they see them playing crucial roles in the future of the business. This develops mutual respect and builds appreciation for the legacy of the family and its business. Larger families may break this group into two categories to enhance the learning opportunities. One may be the next generation, already a part of the business, and the other is the younger ones who are mostly there to eat Grandma’s cookies but like to hear Grandpa’s stories. The key is to have intentional discussions about the past, present and future of the business with every generation involved.

Having a resident patriarch is a true blessing unique to family businesses. As in all other parts of your business, be deliberate in how you work together to maximize the influence they have on multiple generations.