Pygmalion – Your successor will follow in your footsteps. Of course.

I wonder whether this is a problem of founders, because that’s where I’ve seen this the most. There is a successful entrepreneur, head of a nice and growing company, engineering genius, patent owner, top notch professor, or otherwise well connected, well informed about every little technical aspect of all the jobs needed in their company. The hero who carries the company on their shoulder. And when they come to think about retirement and succession, they see their child, or their children, as those who grow to walk in their exact footsteps.

I’ve known some of these children, and their tragedy. They knew, deep inside, that they were not a clone of their father. If only they had studied law or medicine, joined a business somewhere different, and on the side got to work early as the secretary to the board of directors, later as a member of the board, maybe as the president. But never involved in operational management of the firm, yet alone work under their father. But the calling in the family was stronger, and they fought to live up to expectations that never did justice to their talents and capabilities.

I also had some conversations with the fathers (in my case, it was only fathers). Based on their talent, they were heavily involved in the details of the company. Evidently they had an executive committee around them which was used to executing, but not to taking responsibility for the whole enterprise, because nor the owner, nor the managers themselves saw them as part of the team that jointly carried the burden of general management of the company.

These fathers never saw the necessity that with the hand-over, something about this structure would need to change. And of course they didn’t see that they could work towards preparing the company for this change well ahead of the moment of truth.

As the saying goes: Over the age of 50, entrepreneurs start saying that it is time to think about quitting. Over 60 also the others say it. Over 70 only the others say it.

Funnily enough, the companies I am talking about are small to mid-size. If you look at large public corporations with a large share in the hands of the original owners, at families such as Koechlin with Novartis, Hoffmann and Oeri with Roche, they did it completely different.

I wonder what came first, the size or the mindset.

Pygmalion and Galatea is an old myth told by Ovid of the sculptor Pygmalion who created a statue so beautiful that he fell in love with her. Venus had mercy on him and let the statue – Galatea – come to life. Amongst the many adaptations, George Bernhard Shaw’s theatre piece Pygmalion was the original to the musical and film My Fair Lady.