“No one is stepping up and showing any leadership. I still have to do most of it myself.” As John* inched closer to his retirement date, he had hoped that his children (who are funeral professionals) would start taking on more responsibility to help families, work with vendors and volunteer for countless other tasks. But when you talked to John’s children, they would frequently complain that their father would not allow them to take on these new responsibilities.
Then John contracted COVID-19, forcing him to miss work for three weeks. In hindsight, he wishes he had let his children take on more responsibilities earlier. Instead, he had less than a day to prepare them to run the business without him and found out the hard way that they were not ready to take over day-to-day operations.
In contrast, Sarah* told me about a much different situation at the funeral home she owns. “I’m so proud to see that Allison,* my longtime second-in-command, is really stepping up,” Sarah said. “I’m feeling more confident about eventually turning my business over to her.”
Over the past year, Sarah had two crises hit her family. Her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and, as the only child, Sarah needed to move her mother to a specialized facility. She also had to pack up and sell her mother’s house to pay for her care. Shortly after this, Sarah’s 17-year-old daughter was in a car accident and spent three months with her leg in a cast and had two more months in almost daily physical therapy.
“The truth is that I just wasn’t around half as much as I normally would be,” Sarah shared. “It was a bit of a crash course for Allison, but we had several weeks to get her ready to take a bigger role. I’ve seen her confidence increase dramatically. I’d have no problem leaving the funeral home for over a week with her in charge.”
Create Space for Growth
John and Sarah's stories teach a powerful lesson: A critical part of helping the next generation grow and improve is to provide conditions that will allow this to happen. It is vital to intentionally create space (what I call “creating a vacuum”) for the next generation to grow into their roles and take responsibility. Although Sarah was dealing with difficult life events, she was fortunate to discover this principle by accident. In her situation, the vacuum was created when she was forced to be away and allow Allison to take more responsibility.
When I last spoke with John about his situation, it was clear that he was continuing to micromanage and hover over his children despite his stated desire for them to grow into new roles. This was in spite of the fact that his children had more than 10 years of experience in funeral service. In essence, John was wondering why his children couldn’t learn to ride a bike while he was refusing to let go of the back of the seat.
Make a Development Plan
One of the best ways to help the next generation develop responsibility and grow into new roles is to take a long vacation. I highly recommend that if your children or key employees have a reasonable amount of experience, then you should provide time and space for them to develop their skills. My advice is to plan a lengthy cruise or a trip to Europe to begin in three months. Then let your key staff members know about your trip. Make a plan to immediately begin turning over more and more duties to them to practice for when you will be gone. Give them room to make mistakes and accomplish tasks entirely on their own (i.e., let go of the bike’s seat) but also know that you are available for questions. Set a clear deadline (the trip), and then let them grow into new roles and responsibilities.
I know it is scary, but development occurs when there is room for it to happen. As an owner or manager, it is up to you to create the space that allows your key people to grow and advance.
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*Names and details have been changed to maintain confidentiality.