When Mom or Pop is forced to leave a Mom-and-Pop shop because of illness, disability, or simply retirement, it can leave a hole the remaining family members must fill to keep the business going. What can you do to help your family business make the transition? How can sons and daughters fill the vacuum left when a parent steps away from the family business?

Changing Roles in a Family Business is Never Easy

Every business relies on key employees to operate smoothly and respond to unexpected obstacles. In a family business, while sons, daughters, and other relatives may come to play important roles, it is most often the patriarch or matriarch who guides the business and has the final say.

When that parent steps away from the family business, it can create uneasiness for customers, anxiety for employees, and challenges for the remaining leadership. Where changes need to be made, they must be done deliberately, based on sound business strategies. They must also be communicated clearly to avoids feelings of a hostile take-over, or that the company has suddenly changed course.

Responding to a Sudden Absence at the Top

Ideally, the groundwork for transition will be laid long before your parent steps away from the family business. In most cases, family business succession planning should start years before the CEO or business owner actually retires. This allows for the change to happen gradually, and successors to receive necessary guidance and training to perform their new responsibilities.

But sometimes the decision to leave happens much faster, such as in the case of an unexpected illness or injury, or when a global pandemic places older adults at high risk. When that happens, the remaining family members may be forced to respond to a sudden absence of talent, experience, and connections just when the company need those traits most.

Keep Your Parent’s Council If You Can

Just because your mother or father needs to step away from the day-to-day operations of the business doesn’t mean they want to cut all ties. Often, your parents may be eager to continue to serve as an advisor or board member. That way they can provide advice and guidance and help create a strategic transition plan for the business. Keep your parent as involved as you can to avoid losing their institutional knowledge to a sudden retirement.

Define Key Employees’ New Roles and Seek Coaching to Fill Them

Unless there is one obvious successor in the family business, the days immediately following an unexpected departure may be something of a power struggle. Siblings, relatives, and unrelated top employees may all seek to fill the hole left by a parent stepping away from the family business. In other cases, additional family members may see this as an opportunity to leave the company and pursue their own career goals, further widening the distance remaining employees must cover to carry on.

In these cases, it is crucial to have facilitated meeting of the key decision-makers, to understand each member’s goals, preferences, and priorities. A facilitator can help you define what your parent’s role in the company was and identify one or more successors well-suited to taking on those roles. Where there is room for development (and when isn’t there?), an executive coach can help shore up the new leaders’ skill sets, and fill the gaps your parent left behind.

Communicate with Staff and Key Customers About What Has Happened

Controversy grows to fill a vacuum. If you try to avoid embarrassing your loved one by concealing their illness, the rumor mill may come up with false explanations that are even worse. To avoid this, take the time as soon as practical after your parent steps away to make a tasteful public statement about what has happened. This statement should recognize your family member’s past role in forming or growing the business, explain generally why the change is occurring, and focus on where the business will be going in the future. That way, you can quiet concerns over whether the business will survive without its founder or leader.

David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 25 years’ experience helping family businesses deal with unexpected transitions. Through business succession planning and executive coaching, David helps small and medium-sized family firms carry on and grow when founders step away. Contact us to meet with David to start building your family business transition plan today.