Setting the Stage
Succession is always hard, especially in family businesses -- and most especially in a family business run by a world-famous patriarch. Here the son of one such founder talks about what has helped him and his siblings as they try to fill some awfully big shoes
Jim Henson, world-renowned creator of the Muppets and CEO of Jim Henson Productions, caught pneumonia and died without warning in May 1990. His five children, then 19 to 30 years old and all involved to varying degrees in the business, needed simultaneously to resolve Jim Henson Productions' near-done but increasingly messy merger with the Walt Disney Co.; to deal with the emotional fallout from their 53-year-old father's sudden death; and to figure out how to run a company that had known only the charismatic leadership of one highly creative man for a quarter century. Somehow, they pulled it off.
The Disney deal was scuttled (favorably), and middle child Brian Henson, now 30 and long the most fully involved of the siblings, rose to CEO. Today, to the surprise of analysts who three years ago predicted the company's swift sale or an even more torturous demise, Jim Henson Productions remains private and independent, employs 200 people, and is widely judged to be better run than ever.
Leaving aside the practical challenges of assuming any company's direction, how did new CEO Henson, his co-owner sisters and brother, and chief operating officer Charles Rivkin (who is only two years older than Henson) cope with stepping unprepared into legendary shoes? What did they tell nervous employees and business partners? Why did this succession work better than so many others?* * *
I didn't know, in the sad days immediately following my father's death, how lucky my family and I would turn out to be because of things my father had put in place over the course of his working life -- how lucky the whole company would turn out to be, really. Initially, in the weeks after the memorial services, my sisters and brother and I continually spoke as a group to the people in the company, saying that the company would continue, led by the family, with your support. "We need your help," was what we kept saying.
What we couldn't imagine then -- what I couldn't have imagined, anyway -- was how thoroughly we would receive that help. David Lazer, then executive vice-president, stepped in as president for eight months and did a stunning job of holding the company together during that difficult period. I also couldn't have anticipated how the transition to second-generation leadership would be smoothed in a number of ways by groundwork my father had laid while not even being aware, perhaps, that he was laying it.
It's true that my father was a charismatic, larger-than-life figure, who in the eyes of many was our company. When he founded Jim Henson Productions, he believed it was necessary to build and establish the company with an identifiable face. And that's what we did. And we're still Jim Henson Productions and always will be. But inside the company, my father was never so dominant. He always wanted people to be creatively and emotionally invested in what they did. And they were, because everyone's ideas -- those of the puppeteers, the writers, the producers, everyone -- mattered to him. He believed that projects worked best if they were a team effort, and he was always pushing the group dynamic to its limit. A film or television show might begin with an individual vision, but then it was fed by the talents of all those other people who were encouraged to add their creative input. People at the company were given a lot of room to work and were expected to take advantage of it. Nobody stood around waiting for Jim Henson's instructions.
Just as important, my father never wanted others to be or to think like him -- so no matter how big a personality he became, his presence was never oppressive. That appreciation for individuality was so strong in him that it became the main message in the work we do -- that you should love and appreciate one another for your differences. Think of "The Muppet Show," with its ridiculously different characters having nothing in common yet getting along and having fun because of their differences. I think that was my father's life philosophy. He wanted people who were wildly and eccentrically different from himself at the company. He loved seeing what they could do and how they would surprise him. That philosophy created an incredible and diverse pool of company talent -- individuals who were and are vital to our continued success.
The company culture provided an enormous advantage when, unexpectedly, a succession became necessary. Because people were respected and counted on, because their ideas were needed and encouraged, they really did feel responsible for the things we made. And because they were used to feeling responsible, it wasn't such a shock to feel a bit more responsible when my father was gone. They were used to inventing things; they were used to making decisions. The whole culture promoted confidence, a sense of responsibility, and a capacity to act. In a way, my father had prepared people to handle the ongoing burden of operations during and after my succession. It wasn't such a big change.
The second way the company culture contributed to a successful transition was that we all believed it was our own work that was reflected in the business's success. Nobody here ever felt it was "Jim's company" -- despite how it may have appeared to outsiders. The employees wanted the company to survive because they felt it was their company. And they liked it the way it was.
That meant, of course, they had a vested interest in seeing that the transition worked. They didn't want some Hollywood-executive outsider to come in and change things. They wanted a creative-side guy at the top. Though I was obviously not as experienced as my father was, I had the same expertise as a puppeteer, director, and producer. Now, of course, I'm also a businessman; that was the part I had to learn. There was a lot of give-and-take that first year and a lot of growing.
The last thing I've come to see is how I, too, was more prepared by my father for succession than I knew. As I run the company or manage a production group, I'm suddenly very aware of all the teaching my father was doing when we worked together -- the conversations that weren't business related but were about how to treat people, how people should work together, how you can't hold a grudge. He thought about what his philosophies were and about how people should live and talked with me a lot about those things over the last nine years or so. Now I use those ideas every day, and because they're the underpinnings of a workplace that has powerful positive effects of its own, they've turned out to be the main reasons we've all been able to carry on here so well.* * *
Brian Henson is president and CEO of Jim Henson Productions.