Helicopter Founders - Conway Center for Family Business

Helicopter Founders

Based on a discussion from the July 2014 Women’s Peer Group, facilitated by Bea Wolper, Conway Center Co-Founder and Service Provider – Emens & Wolper Law Firm.

Many of us are aware of the term “Helicopter Parents (HPs).” These HPS are defined by Wikipedia as parents who pay “extremely close attention to their children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions” and who hover over their children, whether the children need them to or not! As early as 1969, Dr. Hiam Ginott mentioned that a teen complained his mother hovered over him like a helicopter. HPs are also referred to as “lawnmower parents” because they “attempt to smooth out and mow down all obstacles…including (but not limited to) at their children’s workplaces, regarding salaries and promotions, after they have graduated from college and are supposedly living on their own.” In 2009, Time Magazine offered a photo description of this protectiveness by a picture of a parent wrapping her son in bubble wrap!

Just as parents have trouble letting go of their grown children, Founders of a Family Business often have trouble relinquishing control and taking their hand off the steering wheel of the business. “Helicopter Parents” turn into “Helicopter Founders.” Mom and Dad have agreed to step aside and let the next generation run the family business. Son or Daughter is now named “President.” Mom and Dad let everyone know that they are no longer running the business; that Son or Daughter is in charge – on their own! Right.

But after a few suggestions here or there, suddenly, Helicopter Founders can’t help hovering. They question decisions. Words come out of their mouths that start with…”I didn’t do it that way.” Or, “don’t forget to…”, or “If you do this, then it will be fixed.” Or, “I think you should do this…” They second guess. They want to continue to help make all the decisions, even if they have given up the legal right to do so. They question expenditures. They question work and vacation schedules. They question salaries. They question expansion. Unfortunately, the silent but present message is: “I don’t trust you.”

To smooth this transition, Family Businesses will often turn to outside help in the form of independent boards of advisors or directors. The Advisors are able to reinforce that “everything is ok” and “everything will be ok.” The new leaders may wish to prepare a strategic business plan with specific benchmarks of success and share it with the Founders. Once Founders can see the new leaders have a plan, and are executing it, they may be able to let go. In addition, a strong, active Family Business Council can help ground those Helicopter Founders once and for all! Comments regarding the family and the business – and how the business is being run – can be discussed and issues resolved.

Unfortunately, sometimes the worst critics of new leadership will be non-family management, loyal to the memory of the Founders, who feel it is disrespectful not to do things the way they were done in the past. It is important to energize such management to understand that moving forward (by definition) means learning form the past while planning for what the company needs to do to be successful now and  in the future.

The motives of Helicopter Founders are usually good. They mean well and they want to be helpful. But, a 2013 study found that helicoptering decreases an adult child’s feelings of autonomy, competence, and connection and increases feelings of depression and dissatisfaction. In the case of family business, this can mean children fleeing the businesses. Successful family businesses thrive by new, strong self-sufficient leaders, who have been taught by strong, successful parents. The new leaders will continue to grow and learn by making decisions based on such knowledge (right or wrong). Breathing room is always necessary for thriving.


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