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Longevity requires mentoring

March 1, 2007 By    

The universal goal of most family-owned companies is to see the business continue long-term and for it to be passed down from generation to generation.

Carl Hughes LP/Gas Magazine Columnist
Carl Hughes LP/Gas Magazine Columnist

The all-time U.S. record for family-owned business succession is the Zildjian Cymbal Co. of Norwall, Mass. A maker of top-quality cymbals, well known by any percussionist, Zildjian was started by a 17th century metallurgist seeking to make gold out of metal alloys. Eventually immigrating to the United States, Zildjian is now operated by the 14th generation of the founder.

The sad fact is that two out of three family-owned businesses will not make the transition to the second generation for a number of reasons. One thing is certain – for family businesses to continue to survive and grow, there needs to be a focused effort on preparing the next generation for leadership.

Passing the Baton

How do family-owned propane companies prepare the next generation of leaders to take the leadership baton when the current leaders retire? The concept of coaching, teaching, tutoring and otherwise preparing an individual for a new leadership role is called mentoring.

Simply, mentoring is where one individual (the mentor) invests time and energy working with another person (the mentee) to pass along their knowledge and to help the mentee grow and develop in their leadership skills. Generally, an older individual mentors a younger person, but not always.

Mentoring is a critical piece of grooming the next generation, so it is necessary for the family business to embrace the concept. Too often the hard-charging business leader is focused on growth and either ignores the need for a successor or irrationally expects the next generation to “learn it on their own just like they did.”

It is a sad ending when a propane company has young family members who are clearly capable and interested in taking over the family business, but fail because they were ill-prepared. Often they are abruptly inserted into a role for which they are not ready, and the business fails or doesn’t reach its full potential. Alternatively, potential leaders quit because they are ineffective and leave the family business in frustration.

Where to Start

To start the mentoring process you should identify key individuals (often not family) who can take the younger generation under their wing. Frequently there will be more than a single mentor for a mentee – one for marketing, sales and account building while another mentor may be the tutor for the mechanical and operational instruction. Other key areas for mentoring are in the management of people and in the financial and information technology areas.

Some basic rules for the process are:

  • Make the decision to participate voluntary by both parties;
  • Ensure the program is based on trust, confidentiality and honesty;
  • Understand that it is a long-term commitment; and
  • Select mentors outside the normal reporting chain of command (i.e., your boss may not be your best mentor.)

You should have clear objectives for the process and determine ahead of time the skills and benefits that you want the mentee to learn. Some key items to consider include:

  • Obtain insight into how the family organization conducts business;
  • Learn technical and leadership skills;
  • Access knowledge and business networks;
  • Obtain practical insights; and
  • Grow in personal self-awareness, self-confidence and self-esteem.

Mentors benefit from this long-term relationship as well, gaining the satisfaction of helping another person to develop and helping the organization to succeed. They also learn something from teaching others.

In the most successful family-owned propane businesses management understands the important role of mentoring in developing successors. Think about who the mentors are in your company. Explore ways that long-time employees can become mentors for your next generation.

Your company’s future depends on what you do today to prepare the leaders of tomorrow.

Carl Hughes is vice president of business development for Inergy LP. He can be reached at
or 816-842-8181.

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