The Corporate Shrink

When a founder won't name a successor.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

I’m the son of the founder of a thriving family-owned manufacturing company. My brother and sister also work in the business. My father recently survived a heart attack and needs to name a successor, but he keeps putting it off. How do we get him to act before it’s too late? (issue 81, page 46)

Sadly, this is a common problem in family enterprises–and too often the cause of business failure. The founder, even after a harsh reminder of his mortality, denies the need to plan for succession. Some founders don’t act because they cling to fantasies of invulnerability or immortality. Others hesitate to pick one of their offspring as successor because they fear being blamed for any jealousy or fighting that might ensue, even after their death. Still others don’t want to consider the possibility that none of their kids might be qualified to take over.

Rather than pushing your father now–the poor guy just had a heart attack, after all–you and your siblings might try to understand more about the particular fears that keep him from doing what he needs to do. Ask him to spin out the scenarios he imagines if he taps any, or none, of you. Better than confronting his denial head-on, see what you can do to help him feel more comfortable with any succession decision, while appealing to his natural entrepreneurial desire to live on through the legacy of his business.

It can be hard for siblings to set aside a lifetime’s worth of mixed feelings for one another long enough to empathize with their parents’ wrenching need to declare one child the “winner.” And the best person to lead the family business may not be a family member at all. The challenges are at least as complex as the family itself. Make sure that you and your siblings don’t use the business as a stage upon which to play out old grievances against your parents and one another.

How do you change your spots–specifically, the habits that other people at work find annoying? Feedback from colleagues is fine, but you end up with answers that can be hard to digest. 

This is the holy grail of the self-help industry. If only it were so easy. Personality is shaped early on, with critical aspects either inherited or laid down in the first six years of life. Further development occurs through adolescence, but by early adulthood, we’re largely done. After that, it takes either extensive work or a traumatic event to change one’s spots even a little.

People like to believe they can will themselves to change. But it’s hard to make a dent in the fundamental ways we think and feel. Most attempts fail because they don’t take into account the unconscious underpinnings of who we are and the deep stake we have in remaining the same. It takes years of practice to learn to play the violin; it stands to reason that it also takes enormous effort to change one’s personality.

Self-help books and seminars are limited by their generic strategies–and coaching can be risky when it tries to take on what should be left to well-trained therapists. Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapies probably offer the best chance of understanding and changing embedded patterns of thinking about and relating to the world. But like the violin, they require hard work with no guarantee of success.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (