Are you thriving in the family business, or only surviving? It can be incredibly rewarding to establish a business with the intention to create a legacy that will live longer than the patriarch or matriarch founder.Your business can become the cultural glue for the family, as each member finds a role by which to contribute to the good of the whole. Unlike some other families who pass like ships in the night, members of a family business are able to spend quantity as well as quality time together, with ample opportunity to build depth in the relationship.

Keeping business, business

Asian family in front of family-owned store

The family business is, of course, not without its hurdles.One of the challenges in family businesses, particularly in ones where older and younger generations of a family are working together, is the willingness of the coworkers-family members to challenge the existing order of the relationships.Familial traditions might dictate that Dad is always the boss, and that he is never to be questioned or challenged.Habits of thought might lead the adult sons or daughters to keep assuming that they are meant to be seen but not heard. And the group might be in the habit of making decisions and work assignments based on the old news that “Sonny was never a good student” – even though his school days are long behind him.

In family businesses individuals are sometimes less likely to be judged on merit alone. The water can become muddied by deeply held disappointments, overblown expectations, and real or imagined hurts sustained during the family history.Your ability or inability to separate business from family dynamics could become the factor that grows your business – or harms your family beyond repair. You can’t fully leave the workplace behind when you lock the door at the end of the day, because the people with whom you just had a work-based argument are the same ones that will be with you on vacation or around the holiday dinner table

You need HR policies, and fact-based measurement and decision making tools to help you gauge company, departmental, and individual performance without involving the family dynamic.This doesn’t mean that you become a complete calculator-head with no ability to relate with people. It means that you can better balance your emotions with your rational self.You need a succession plan or an exit plan if you want the business to be a going concern after you retire. This requires an assessment of the capacity of involved family members, and a reality conversation with them about their desire to take the helm at some point (or not.)

And don’t wait until six months before you’re ready to be done before you start to develop your next-in-line. Give yourself – and them – some opportunity to test their skills before the entire business rests on them. In addition, consider the financial impact of your expected retirement income on the business. The burden of now-non producing family members can sink the business finances. You need some legal agreements to make sure that your estate is handled properly, that the ownership of the company is transferred without incident, and that the relationships between your heirs can be preserved. Poor (or no) estate planning is a great way to kill a family and its family business in one fell swoop.

You need to keep a crack in the door.

Your family members need to be able to talk with you, to reach you, without having to request an audience. You have your own productivity to manage, but if you do not provide opportunities for them to tell you about the smaller issues they are dealing with, you might only find out about them once they have grown to proportions that are far more difficult to resolve. They are additional eyes and ears in the business, and they can help you.

For the SOBs and DOBs – (sons and daughters of the boss)

It might be hard to reconcile the fact that your parent’s business might be their first-born child, and carry a huge amount of emotional attachment. It might seem like the business comes first – all of the time, no matter what – and you may be right. It’s been first because they have relied on it to provide security for you and the rest of the family, and because it has been a terrific outlet for them and their talents. If they are not the first generation owner, they might feel a tremendous responsibility to maintain the business to preserve the family name. They haven’t forgotten you – this is largely for you.

But aside from trying to understand where they are coming from, there are some things you need to do to be successfully involved in the company:

  1. Acquire some outside experience first. As the business grows and goes through different phases, different skills are needed. If your family business is like many, its founders are terrific at performing the content of the business, but might not be as effective at working ON the business. Marketing, finance, human resources, management, planning – all can be valuable fields of experience to be brought back to benefit the business.
  2. Expect to work your way up.Having the right last name might not be the best ticket to the corner office. Even if you are well educated and have outside experience, you are not automatically entitled to a VP Title and a posh office space. It’s important for you to experience the nitty gritty of the business first-hand, so you can develop the head and the heart for it. You will need to work to earn the respect of employees who might have known you since the days when your playpen was positioned in the corner of the production area and you drooled all over your toys while sitting in it.
  3. Work hard. This should be a no-brainer, but SOBs and DOBs who feel entitled don’t always do it. Long lunches, short work weeks and poor productivity leave Mom or Dad frustrated and embarrassed, and create tension with other employees that you might be in the position to lead later. You won’t be able to lead if they don’t want to follow you.
  4. Look for the crack in the door, then push it open.The business needs your brainpower, with new ideas, solutions to existing problems, and observations on what’s not going right and needs to be corrected. Even though Dad or Mom wasn’t necessarily receptive to your ideas in your teen years (and may not yet be very open,) it’s your job to act in the best interests of the business.That might mean challenging the familial pattern of power, or telling Mom or Dad something that you are pretty sure they don’t want to hear.The door is not always wide open, and it shouldn’t always be. Talking about business in general isn’t even remotely the same – as rife with emotional landmines – as working on the business. Every person’s productivity is important to the company’s success. But both generations in the family business need to use the door to its best advantage. That almost always means to leave the opportunity for productive communication open – even if it’s just a crack.
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