Dear Christy

Apr 04, 2016

MGBQ17CX9FDear Christy, I have a son who is in engineering school. I'd really like to have him join our firm and eventually succeed me in running this business. How do you suggest I make that happen? — Getting Old in Omaha. Dear Omaha, I know from personal experience that working with family members can be very tough, but it happens relatively frequently in the A/E industry and many firms are able to do it successfully. I’d start with your son. Is this something he is interested in? Firms can grow and change, but if your son really wants to go into earthquake mitigation work and your firm has done mostly local street design and residential plans, it may not be a good match. Additionally, if you want your son to take over the business he also has to have the personality to effectively manage people and the desire and ability to market and sell your firm’s services. Basic business skills like accounting, organization, and an eye for detail don’t hurt either. If your dreams do align, I’d recommend the following:
  • Make sure your son does an internship or works elsewhere for some amount of time. Coming straight out of school and into the workplace can be an eye-opening transition for many people. If your son works elsewhere he inevitably will learn things from management approaches to technology that will improve your firm. If you’re lucky he will appreciate the work you’ve put into creating a good environment and be thankful. An outside perspective will be invaluable in the future.
  • When your son does come to work at your firm, don’t immediately give him the nicest office, extra privileges, and a company car. Make sure he is held to the exact same standard as everyone else, particularly other people who have had similar tenures at the firm and experience in the industry. When I started working for my father here at Zweig Group, he counseled me early on that I had more to prove than other employees and should be the first person to arrive and the last one to leave.
  • Make sure your family members don’t out number other people in the rest of the organization. If you want to have a successful firm that grows and thrives, don’t hire every family member who wants a job. It will become impossible to manage in an unbiased way and may create an environment that is awkward and un-inclusive for other employees.
  • Make sure your son has full support of the leadership and management team of your firm. Trust takes time to build. You will destroy your organization from the inside out if you place your son at the top of the org chart and immediately have senior people reporting to him.
  • Keep the work at work and the family stuff at home. It’s harder than it seems, but your workplace and family will thank you for it.
  • Don’t immediately publicize your desire to eventually hand the reins over to your son, especially at a finite date.
  • Have a backup plan. Make sure you have other leaders in the firm that are interested in ownership opportunities in case your son decides it’s not in his or the firm’s best interest for him to take over. Even if he does take over, he will need good support and leadership.
My final piece of advice: Thinking about ownership transition is something that many firm owners don’t do until far too late. Passing ownership to a family member can be a viable and successful option, but it requires as much planning and cooperation (if not more), than other options. Don’t consider letting your son take over lightly or use it as a last resort.

Christina Zweig is Zweig Group's director of research and marketing. Contact her at

This article is from issue 1142 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.