Dear Builder’s Engineer,
You write a lot about business savvy. I’m nearing retirement and want to pass along my design-build company to my son. What is the one most important piece of advice you would give in this situation?
Frank R., Spartanburg, S.C.
Dear Frank, I, too, have sons to whom I may one day pass along my business.
Of course the things we say to our sons and daughters mean little. What matters most is how we, ourselves, carry on in our own lives—the examples we set day in and day out. Our followers, be they family or employees, do as we do. If we’re of high moral fiber and hard-working, so will they likely be. If we’re mediocre, we shouldn’t expect much of our followers. If we’re lazy and dishonest, that’s probably how our followers will behave too. It was true in caveman times, and it will be true a thousand years from now: It all starts at the top.
When you strip away the fluff and posturing, and drill down to the core of what a business is, you arrive at this: a business is a vehicle to make money. Oh sure, it also provides a good or service, and it can create employment; but truth be told, few would work if they didn’t need the money.
We need money so that we can live. And we live in the pursuit of being happy. And the buck stops right there—the pursuit of happiness. That is the bottom line to everything, the most pure and elemental aspect of humanity.
And so as we contemplate passing along a business to a family member, we must address that fundamental question: am I passing along a vehicle for happiness?
The stew thickens. Certainly a business can be a means of making money, but at what cost? Would your son be happier working for someone else? Is he ready for the rigors of ownership? In the case of my two sons, both in high school, they are many, many years away from any sort of ability to successfully run a business. If they tried too soon they’d either fail and take down the company or be so miserable it wouldn’t be worthwhile. I may retire first and wind up selling to a third party.
Let’s say your son is ready and eager for ownership. For him to be happy running a business, the stress of it must be manageable. There are a few pointers I’d give him to that end, such as: mind the beans; sweat the details; hire slow and fire fast; and keep to core competency. But there is something even more fundamental upon which those principles bear. It is the heart of happiness, both professionally and personally. It is the one piece of advice I’d give. It is embodied in this single word: Integrity.
Ponder carefully this definition from dictionary.com.
in·teg·ri·ty [in-teg-ri-tee] noun
- adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
- the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.
- a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship's hull.
If you distill all of humankind’s righteous character traits into a shot glass, the golden, heady, potent liqueur shimmering therein would be integrity. It can go down smooth or it can make you wince. Either way, it is the essence of happiness. Try as you might, if you’re a human of sound mind, you cannot be truly happy without it. You cannot run a successful business without it. Corporate history is littered with examples of those who’ve tried to buck this truism—Madoff, Enron, and lots of smaller players, some you might know personally.
Integrity demands doing the right thing, every time. It requires not only telling the truth but also disclosing problems even when not asked. Shoddy doesn’t work with integrity; quality does.
Who are the genuinely happy people? They are folks of integrity; nothing to hide, no fear of retribution, and dependable as the day is long. That’s what I want to pass along to my sons. And whether or not it involves taking over my business, well, we’ll have to wait and see.
Tim Garrison is an author, public speaker, and professional engineer. He welcomes correspondence via his blog at ConstructionCalc.com.