Family Business Axioms That Need to Get the Ax

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  – Mark Twain

In the world of family business, it seems that some generally accepted axioms are out of date, yet still frequently quoted. Some might argue that these popular sayings simply condense truths that everyone knows. But the dangerous thing is that these truisms (however true they were to begin with) are often accepted without question. Their very familiarity can block critical thinking and reflection. Here are four family business axioms that may need to be put out to pasture. 

Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves in Three Generations. This saying is so universal, it appears in almost every language and culture: Clogs to Clogs (Scotland), Stalls to Stars to Stalls (Italy), Rice Paddy to Rice Paddy (China). Certainly, the three generations phenomenon can be the case; some statistics bear this out. However, it isn’t pre-ordained for every family business, and it doesn’t take into consideration the new businesses that are started in succeeding generations. This adage isn’t helpful or necessarily true, it’s just fatalistic. 

If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail.  Does anyone actually plan to fail? Really? The advice behind these words is good (planning is important), but it’s too simplistic to be very helpful. People put off planning for all sorts of reasons – indecision, uncertainty, fear, inexperience, conflict avoidance, simple procrastination. Knowing what we should do doesn’t have nearly the impact as understanding why we are or are not doing it. 

She’s the Chief Emotional Officer. This pseudo title might seem catchy, but it usually reflects an assumption that the husband / father is Chief Executive Officer, while the wife / mother is the Chief Emotional Officer who tends to family relationships and makes sure everyone is playing nicely. No doubt, this is still true for some families. But in others, the roles aren’t nearly so clear cut. Also, whether referring to a man or a woman, the phrase sends a subtle message that the emotional life of the family or the needs of individuals is one person’s role. In reality, it should be part of everyone’s thinking. 

You Just have to Separate Business from Family. This one ranks up there with another favorite: “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” As any family business will tell you, it’s never just business. As if it were that simple. And it’s bad advice to boot. The combination of business and family is what makes family businesses unique and powerful. The better advice is not to separate the two, but to accept that priorities in one or the other may overlap or be in conflict and need to be consciously managed. 

Let’s lay these family business axioms to rest. Their popular wisdom is misleading at best and insulting at worst. More importantly, they’re a poor substitute for the deeper thinking and intentional discussion that we need to engage in about legitimate family business challenges. 



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