I distinctly remember the day my son realized he was smarter than I. He was 26 years old and we were discussing the family business. He said to me, “When I was young, I thought you were a brilliant business person but now I’m not so sure.”
He continued, “I don’t mean to offend you, but you’re not so good with the financials. I mean, you can’t just give someone a discount because they can’t afford it. We have to make money too!”
Those words are forever emblazoned in my memory.
Of course, I already knew I wasn’t great at the financial part of the business. I had an accountant and a financial advisor. I made budgets and never followed them. Don’t get me wrong. I never “gave away the store” but when a customer truly could not afford our services, I’d give them our wholesale price. I justified it by saying (or thinking) that the customer that was paying the full price would make up for it. If a customer wanted our service, I wanted them to have it. My strength was marketing. I could get customers in the door like nobody’s business. But I should never have worked on the sales floor.
Conversely, my son is a master negotiator. Whether he’s on the buying side or the selling side, he never leaves a penny on the table. He does it with a smile on his face and the customer thanking him. I don’t know where this skill came from but I’ve watched him in action since he was 14 years old. His first job outside of the family business was a part-time job at Zumies in the mall and he was their #1 sales person within one month of getting the job. He has “scored” better deals on guitars at Guitar Center than anyone I know.
I knew then that he was going to be smarter than me. Part of it is “book smarts”. And part of it is “street smarts”.
As he came into his own within the family business, we invited him in on higher-level decisions more and more. Then we came to rely on his input, even at his young age. I can’t say when I turned the corner of knowing he was smarter than I, but I remember trying to keep it to myself. With just a minimal level of self-awareness, we all know what our weaknesses are and I think it’s human nature to attempt to hide those weaknesses. I struggled to continue to be the great business person I knew he thought I was.
So when my son said, “When I was young, I thought you were a brilliant business person but now I’m not so sure,” I had two choices. To deny it and argue my successes to prove my business acumen or to agree and acknowledge the accuracy of his observation.
I chose the latter. And with that confession came a feeling of relief. I didn’t have to pretend any more.
With a huge [and natural] smile, I responded, “I’m proud of the business person you’ve become. I’ve known for a while you were smarter than you thought you were—and in many areas, smarter than I am. That’s a good thing. I remember when I realized I was smarter than Grandpa too. Each generation needs to be smarter than the one before in order to thrive. I thank God I got a child who is smarter than I am!”
We both chuckled a bit.
That was a turning point in our relationship. That was when we began interacting as two adults rather than a parent and a child in every aspect of our relationship—both personal and professional. It was implied that acknowledging his smarts gave him the permission he needed to not defer to me just because I am the parent. It gave me permission to say, “I don’t know. Can you figure it out?” It allowed us to carve out specific roles for each of us based on our strengths rather than me having a superior role to him simply because I’m the parent. And it emotionally invested him in our business. He no longer worked there just because that’s what our family did. He worked there because it was an extension of him. Like it had been for my dad, and for me.
This honest exchange between my son and I resulted in superior results in the business without negatively affecting our personal relationship in the least. Had I chosen to argue my business savvy, I’m confident it would have eroded our personal relationship and harmed the family business in ways I cannot even imagine. Now that I am semi-retired, I know our business is in good hands for generations to come.
Now if only he’d give me grandchildren!