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Family Succession Planning: Who Gets the Office?

January 30, 2023

Sometimes the most sensitive question in family succession planning is “Who gets the office?

Dad’s (or Mom’s) office is usually perceived as the center of authority by the employees and other family members. That is where you got called on the carpet, where you were informed of promotions, or where you took an insolvable problem.

When a parent/CEO is handing off operating responsibility, there is often a lag, sometimes measured in years, between stepping back from the daily decisions and completely separating from the premises. There is great value in having that experience available for coaching, mentoring, or just to lend perspective on new problems, but where should they sit?

Timing

The question of the appropriate timing for an owner to surrender his or her seat of power can be sensitive. The retiree often worries about becoming irrelevant. The fear of appearing irrelevant is just as strong. The boss’s office is a symbol. Often the owner who is stepping down would rather have no office at all rather than a smaller, less prestigious location.

I’ve seen owners elect to use the conference room as their “temporary” post. That can create other issues of its own. Are scheduled meetings now subject to last-minute relocation if the boss (who will always be the boss, regardless of title transfers) commandeers it for his own use? Equally distracting is when the conference room is scheduled as before. Then the boss arrives planning to do some work and winds up wandering through the offices looking for a place to camp out.

Perception

The situation is exacerbated when multiple children are assuming ownership. Who gets the office? Parents often have a vision of equality among their children. Ricky will handle sales, Peter does the accounting, and Ellie takes care of inventory and purchasing. The three will make business decisions jointly.

Regardless of voting rights, or any amount of explanation to the employees, one of the children will be perceived as functioning at a higher level of authority by assuming possession of the boss’s office. As in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all are equal, but some are more equal than others.

 Family Succession Planning

Settling who gets the boss’s office is an important part of any transfer. Too often it is treated lightly, only to be more seriously addressed after the issues are recognized. The symbolism of moving offices is strong, and sends a message to everyone. In some cases, remodeling to change the whole office configuration may be the best solution. New drywall is a cheaper fix than lingering resentment among shareholders or confusion in the ranks.

It’s often the little things in family succession planning that matter. One owner who was continuing in his office after his son was named President asked what he could do to make their shared space better reflect the change.

Well, Dad,“ the son responded, “maybe you could take down those pictures of our fishing trip when I was 11 years old.”

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John F. Dini specializes in business continuity planning and is President of MPN Incorporated, in San Antomio, Texas.