21 Jan Family Business Roles and Relations
One day, a son walked into his father’s office. His father sat behind the desk, wearing a baseball cap with the word “Boss” on the front. Looking up at his son, the father said, “I’m glad you stopped by. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but things just aren’t working out. We’re going to have to let you go.” The father then got up and walked out of the office. A minute later, he came back in, this time wearing a hat that said “Dad.” “Gee, Son, I’m so sorry to hear you lost your job today. I feel just terrible for you. What can I do to help?”
As far-fetched as this story sounds, it highlights an important aspect of life in a family business. The roles people play and the hats they wear can be confusing – unless you manage them.
In families, relationships and roles are formed early. An oldest child may become known as the “responsible” one and a youngest child may wear the role of “free spirit.” It’s true that birth order plays a role in how we see ourselves. Yet in any family, and perhaps especially in family business, we should not expect individuals to be bound by these same roles in adulthood. The “baby” of the family may in fact be highly competent and qualified, ready to make a strong contribution to the business.
In other families, roles are created because subconsciously the family needs them. The family “peacemaker” may have taken on that role because he or she learned early how to diffuse tension between argumentative parents. Other children may become overachievers because of the expectations an ambitious Dad or Mom placed on them. As adults, each of us tends to revert back to old patterns and roles when we are with family. While this is quite normal, families who work together must make an extra effort to manage roles and allow individuals to become the person they want to be.
So how do the best family-run companies manage family roles and relations? Here are a few tips from actual family businesses currently working on this challenge.
Make sure your goals work together, but keep your roles separate. Family goals and business goals must be intertwined, but family and business roles can be differentiated. Don’t pay for your grandchild’s tuition out of the company checking account. Don’t let business disagreements spill over into home life. Try to separate the two – symbolically and practically.
At work, address each other by first name. You may find it difficult not to call each other “Mom,” “Uncle Steve,” or “Sweetheart.” But using family names just calls further attention to family relationships. It also can make non-family employees feel like outsiders. In addition, using first names at work subtly take roles out of the mix and puts family members on more equal footing in the business.
Save important business discussions for the office. Holidays are a time when families often are together as a group. It’s tempting to talk about business when you’re all gathered together in the same place. Make it a rule not to talk about business at family celebrations. Save it for the office. Better yet, set aside a regular time each month for the entire family to come together in discussion about the family business. Make family council meetings a priority for the coming year.
Commute to work and meetings separately. Just because you live in the same household doesn’t mean you’re joined at the hip. Many husbands and wives find that commuting separately or using their own transportation to meetings, helps establish a boundary between their personal and business lives. The time from home to office and office to home helps each party decompress and maintain balance. Family members who work together must constantly remind themselves that they wear several hats. When family members go off to work, they engage in some complex human interactions. In the healthiest family businesses, members understand these roles and relations and take concrete steps to manage the boundaries between family and business.