Family Business Roles and Relations

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 silly 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 baffling at times. 

In families, relationships and roles are formed early. An oldest child may become known as the “responsible” one and a youngest child may bear the label 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 a family business, we shouldn’t 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 she or he learned early how to diffuse tension between argumentative parents. Other children may become overachievers because of the expectations an ambitious parent placed on them. As adults, each of us tends to revert back to old patterns and roles when we’re 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 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 Mike,” 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. 

Save important business discussions for the office. It’s tempting to talk about business when you’re gathered together at the lake house or for Sunday dinner. 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 a planned discussion about the family business. 

Commute to work and meetings separately. Just because you live in the same household doesn’t mean you’re joined at the hip. For example, many business couples 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 them decompress and maintain balance. 

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