The Odyssey of Mentoring in a Family Business

The Odyssey of Mentoring in a Family Business

In Greek mythology, there’s only one figure whose character matures over time: Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope, immortalized in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. The poem mainly centers on Odysseus and his long journey home after the fall of Troy. During his absence, Odysseus is presumed dead; Penelope and Telemachus are left to deal with a horde of disreputable suitors competing for Penelope’s hand in marriage.

Telemachus, who was an infant when his father left home, is about 20 when the story begins. At first, we see that he feels quite helpless. He despises the suitors courting his mother, but feels powerless to do anything. He mopes around desperately hoping his father will return. He’s immature, insecure and doesn’t realize he’s in danger from people who wish to do him harm.

All this changes when he meets the goddess Athena, appearing in the form of Mentor, who becomes his trusted confidante and guide. With Mentor, Telemachus embarks on a journey to discover his heritage and inheritance. On the way, he learns about the responsibilities of a young prince. His experiences help him become more poised and confident. By the end of the story, he astonishes everyone by returning home, denouncing the suitors and taking control of his father’s estate.

For a family business, succession to the next generation is the ultimate odyssey. The smoothest transition results from a thoughtful process that unfolds over many years. Next generation leaders have a lot to learn on their journey and if they’re not well prepared, the future of the business is far from assured. For a family business, mentoring isn’t just a nice thing to do – it’s critical to the survival of a family enterprise.

Why Athena and not Odysseus?

Well first of all, Odysseus wasn’t around much. But more to the point, not every parent can be a great mentor. Some lack the time or patience. Others have a hard time being objective. In mentoring, as in life, it’s important to know your limitations. While parents will always be involved to some degree in mentoring their children, many solicit the help of other family members, non-family executives or trusted advisors to guide successors.

Stuart Silberg, a former owner of C-Mart discount warehouse in Harford County, is one senior leader who stepped away from the business when it was time for his son Keith to step up. “As a father, mentoring was easy,” Silberg says. “As a business partner, not so easy. Keith and I have a wonderful relationship and we’re also very different. I’m analytical, he’s creative. I’m left, he’s right. In my view, it was more important to let Keith succeed on his own, without me jeopardizing my role as his father.”

Silberg opted for early retirement and sold his shares, while Keith assumed a greater role alongside his uncle, Douglas Carlton. Though C-Mart shut down in 2008, Keith Silberg brought it back a year later under a new name, The Big Tarp Store. Dad Stuart and Uncle Douglas continue to serve as informal business mentors.

Whether family or non-family, mentors must be chosen carefully. Aunt Sue won’t be very effective if she views her niece as a rival to her own daughter. Non-family executives can help successors develop, but must understand that their role is to support and share knowledge – not to choose the successor.

Mapping the Journey

On the surface, it may seem that family business mentoring just naturally occurs after a protégé is connected with a great mentor. But there’s more to it than that. Before you set out, you need a road map.

Your plan should outline the protégé’s current knowledge, skills and abilities, what needs to be developed, how it will be developed, and a way of measuring progress over time. Goals often include gaining specific business or industry knowledge, building a professional network, managing a team and leading a department or profit center.

Rotating through different roles or positions in the business also should be part of your mentoring plan. Many successors cite “doing every job in the company, from clerk to CEO” as a meaningful milestone.

Just as importantly, your plan should include the development of critical leadership competencies. What kind of leadership will the business require in the future? What style of leadership is important to the family no matter where the business is headed?

Set Out at First Light

The story of Telemachus begins at age 20, when he was on the verge of adulthood. But in the view of some forward thinking families, Odysseus and Penelope left it too late.

Wanda Ortwine is head of the family office of Luck Stone Corporation, a family enterprise founded in 1923 with operations in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. “We’ve been working with the fourth generation (ages 10 to 16) for several years now,” she says. “Our goal is to help the next generation find and follow their passion – whether that’s working in the family business or not.”

The Luck Family meets several times a year with Ortwine and a family business advisor. Through age-appropriate activities, the children learn about the business, its mission and the family’s values. They also work on skills related to communication, trust building and living a healthy lifestyle.

“Formal family meetings are just one aspect of mentoring,” Ortwine says. “Charlie and Lisa [Luck] use everyday situations as a learning opportunity. When they give their kids allowance, they ask for an accounting of how it’s spent, so they’re learning how to budget. When they’re at a restaurant, they talk about what great customer service means.” At this stage, Ortwine notes, “the focus isn’t on succession. It’s on growth of the individual and building strong family relationships for the future.”