Smarter Family Business Via Communication

Having grown up in a family owned business, I have experienced a thing or two in common with many of my clients. Even when I was yet in middle school, I would be recruited to help out in the business, much to my own dismay at times when I would much rather be doing something (anything?) else. However, a little bit of pay went a long ways to making a young man very content. As I grew older, however, the conflict between what needed to be done in the business and what I wanted to do became greater. My goals, dreams, and ambitions had less and less to do with staying in town, working alongside my dad, and us building something together. As you can imagine, this difference of opinion caused a bit of a rift in our relationship. So it goes with many family businesses.

The mismatch between the expectations that a founder has in terms of the involvement of children in the business and their actual desire to be involved is one of the leading problems encountered in family businesses. The parent (substitute other type of founder, but effect is similar) wonders why the child doesn’t put forth the same effort, see the same vision, realize the potential, etc. I delivered a talk for Harley Davidson University on this subject a few years ago, “Why They Don’t Ride With You.” In my session, I spoke with dealers about their frustrations with family members who seemed disinterested in working in or taking over the business. My encouragement to them was to do three things:

  1. Hold the opportunity with an open hand. Instead of making up your mind that there is only one “right” scenario for family members to take part in your business, be flexible! Determine that, while you may have preferences, you will corral your opinions and keep them in check as you attempt to find a common ground.
  2. Communicate often, specifically, including listening. Far too often, a patriarch will squelch the input of a child, spouse, etc in the home–and at work–particularly if work and home blend as in the case of a family business. Rather than honing in on what the other person has to say, we can easily insist on getting our point across before seeking to understand the other person’s view. Ask open ended questions about what the family member enjoys doing, what role they see themselves in, and how those choices affect the business. Create an open dialogue-constantly.
  3. Distinguish between ownership and management. An heir may work in the business or out of it, but still function as an owner. Sometimes, it is best for all if it’s known to be a safe choice to be just an owner or just a manager, rather than both as the founder has been. Realizing that such options exist can diffuse tension, lead to productive conversations, and aid in succession planning. Quite often, outsiders are better successors to founders because they can be objective about the contribution family members make to the business.

There are many other issues that, seen operating in a family business, look and feel different than their counterparts in other types of businesses. Everything from performance measurement to compensation, perks to preferences, psychology to sociology, and very much in between can be seen at work and become a spark for emotions. By far, family businesses are more emotional than others. Whatever your situation, think about tools that help create objective conversations about business issues so that you can lessen the impact of emotions in decisions that are being made. Your business and your family will be better off for it!

 

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