A Family Business

Within a Therapeutic Boarding School

 

Richard L. Chorney, M.S. and Peter J. Chorney, M.S.


 

Working as a father/son team is an extraordinary opportunity

allowing both partners to grow closer personally and professionally

 

This article is about a father and son partnership and its evolution in a therapeutic boarding school. We have decided upon several topics that we both feel strongly about, which in our view are critical for successfully managing this complicated task. The major requirement for a strong base in our joint management begins with our attitudes towards one another as father and son, partners and friends. This is based on mutual respect, an understanding of our individuality and differences, and the importance of our relationship as a whole. What follows is a compilation of our thoughts and experiences, which has emerged through three generations (Richard’s mother was a special education teacher), working with special needs children and adolescents.

Passion

We both feel a tremendous passion for this work. We each came into the process with many interests and abilities. It was apparent that we could pursue our interest in helping children and in so doing introduce them to the many intellectual, artistic, athletic, and cultural interests that we both pursue, some individually and some jointly.

We have both had exceptional mentors in our growing process and share an absolute love for the challenge of this work. Our goal of building a healing community, or milieu, has truly been a lifelong passion for both of us. In the preparation process it was important to be clear that this was not nepotism. We began a path to program leadership which took Peter from Dorm Life to Residential Administrator, to Associate Director, and then to Executive Director. This was a huge step for both of us since we both very much wanted this to work. It was a chance to continue to build and maintain a legacy, and to assure that all the love, time and energy, and again passion, that we both now live with on a daily basis, will continue.

After completing our Masters degrees we were both drawn to the management realm which provides us an opportunity to make a larger impact, managing and teaching both staff and students. Each of us in our own way wanted to improve upon what was, and is.  For us “good enough, never is”.

In our leadership roles we have a unique opportunity to decide what is most important at any given time while also looking at the larger picture, which includes the children, the staff, the facility, the programs, and ourselves. In our leadership role we can decide what will be most important for all; yet we can still manage case work with families, coach a team, sail the Caribbean, and introduce new programs. We have the opportunity to hire and encourage the kinds of staff members who can give of themselves and be secure in who they are, while earning the respect of the children and their peers.

It is clear that we both enjoy the everyday action, and fun, that this work brings. We both want to lead by example. We can both say, with equal pride, that after 50-plus and 18-plus years in professional capacities working with children and adolescents, that we love what we do, and the people we work with.

Communication

Open lines of communication in all levels of staffing are key in managing any business. At a therapeutic boarding school where there are constant staff and student issues and concerns, this is even more paramount. We make sure to connect several times a day about urgent or anticipated campus complexities. This frequent dialogue enables us to stay on top of the issues. In addition to the constant reflections, our different styles of management have helped us become better leaders. Richard’s style is intuitive, reactive and responsive, while Peter takes a more analytical and measured approach. These complimentary styles have given us a more complete balance as we handle campus issues. In a sense, our unique approaches allow us to be more thoughtful in our joint interventions and also provide a mutual quality assurance. Disagreements and tension are sometimes a natural byproduct of working together so closely, however, the father/son trust and connectedness allows us to problem solve together. This approach is crucial as we plan possible expansions or look at other future directions. In sum, frequent communication, mutual trust and thoughtful planning between the family leadership team is essential in leading a successful family business.

Building A Team/Succession

While the father/son team is the main focus of this article, it has been just as vital to surround ourselves with a strong and loyal leadership team. In developing this team, we have stayed true to our values. Both of us started on the bottom rung. We started our careers as line staff and worked our way to the top. This is the same for the majority of our leadership group as they gained advancement in our organization by doing, not by anointment. If you work hard, show talent and commitment over time, there may be a place for you. This value is pervasive for all staff. Although our strong preference is to build our organization by witnessing people over time, we have also had to hire people directly in some specialty areas. Most recently, we made a joint decision that we needed more sophistication and experience in our business office. We hired a Comptroller. This turned into one of our best decisions in some time. While we do prefer a “home grown” group of employees, we also know that we have to be open; that this cannot always be the case. In addition, over the past few years, we have focused on succession planning. We want to preserve the strength of our program in the event that something might happen to one or both of us. We have mutually selected who would come in and take over.  Given the family leadership, it is crucial to address succession planning with our members, family, and current leadership.  This planning has been, and will continue to be, discussed with the pertinent people so there is continuity.

Adapting to Changing Roles

All businesses and organizations should understand that change is a constant process. Each year, our roles shift in sometimes small and sometimes larger ways. As we take on a new project or start a new initiative, there is a discussion about what this will mean.  For example, over the past several years, we have begun a major transformation of our campus. We have built a significant number of new buildings and improved our landscape. This has come at both a fiscal and organizational cost. With one of the team focused on being a general contractor, the other has had to step in to take on more of the day to day program leadership. We both understand and appreciate that adjustments need to be made regularly in order to keep us focused and strong. These shifts have pushed us both into areas where we have had to learn new skills. While challenging, this has enabled both of us to be stronger leaders. Despite the continued adjustments, we make time to plan, review, and communicate. This keeps us both connected to the pulse of the program.

Board of Advisors/Metamorphosis

Our current Board of Advisors has an important role. We (the Program Leaders) have expertise in program development and running a treatment focused school. We know what we are good at and what we need counsel on. We have surrounded ourselves with a board of advisors (13) with talent in marketing, business, law, construction, accounting, etc. We also have a former student, former parent of a student, and family members on our board. Their insights and advice have been crucial as we have expanded, planned for succession, increased our marketing efforts, and managed many other issues. Over the last year we have worked to expand the role of our board.  We want them to be more involved and more connected to the school. We continue to look for new people who can add to this already talented and helpful group.

Our hope is that the Board will soon begin a metamorphosis into a larger entity, likely to 15 or 17 members, and that we can meet more frequently. We are confident that all the current members are able and interested in doing this. We would like to add another former parent and another former student as well as people with a clinical and/or educational background in order to have an even greater variety of expertise to draw upon going forward. It is important that one meeting be at the school so that the Advisory Board can become known to the Executive Council staff in particular, and to all staff and students in general. We also plan to bring staff members to Board meetings to make presentations of what they do and how they do it, as well as to introduce the Board to people whose role(s) will continue to grow in the years ahead.

 

Future Vision/Personal Benefits

While family business teams do not always have to have the same opinions on daily matters, they do have to have the same conceptualization. We share that we both want the school to be strong and able to exist for many years to come. We talk about expansion and try to be measured in our efforts. Family business partners do not have to agree on everything, but they do need to be aligned in their ultimate goals.

Working as a father/son team is an extraordinary opportunity. Not only do we get to see each other often, but we get to learn from each other and share our wisdom and experience. Working together has allowed us to grow closer personally and professionally. While we do have the occasional normal father/son or business partner aggravations, there exists an inherent trust and faith in each other. This type of connectedness enables us to have a thriving partnership. While this may not be right for some father/son pairs, it is perfect for us. In fact, it adds vitality and substance to both our lives.

 

 

 

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