Some Suggestions for Family Business

I’ve done business with my wife, daughter, son-in-law, and various mixtures of those. Of course the classic advice on this is not to mix business with family.

But people do. I read somewhere that 62 percent of the gross national product of the Western world is produced by family businesses.

Furthermore, I don’t believe (much) in general rules or best practices.

But here are some suggestions that might help you manage the mix between family and business relationships.

  1. Beware of the crossover. The cause of most family business problems is the crossover between different relationships. You don’t mix boss and subordinate relationships with parent-child or siblings or husband-wife. People who are successful working with family separate the roles so you don’t get into family behavior when you’re talking about business. You have business discussions and personal life, and never the twain shall meet. That’s really hard to do, but it’s also vital.
  2. Use physical location to help. Make a rule not to talk about business at home and not to talk about home and kids and relationship problems at the place of business.
  3. Use physical presence to help. Don’t talk about business in front of the kids. Or the parents.
  4. Recognize communication triggers. Often what started as business discussion is suddenly husband-wife or sibling-sibling or parent-child, stop. Call time out. Have a signal. Adopt a safe word. We spend years in patterned habitual behavior based on the family relationship so stopping it for business is hard. We have to work on it.
  5. Don’t forget to acknowledge the advantages of family business. You are working with people you know and trust who care about the same things you do. You share the problems. You share the rewards.
  6. Don’t pretend it’s all arms length and objective. Family factors influence decisions. It’s naive and distracting to pretend they don’t. Try to be aware of how and when they do and manage the long-term objectives accordingly.
  7. Never stop learning.

My wife and I didn’t intend to build a family business. I was on my own consulting and building products and she was (still is) my advisor and confidante. We grew older and our children grew up. People who were once preteens spending Saturday mornings putting sticky labels on plastic software disks grew up and became interested in the business. We never pushed them to, but never tried to avoid it either.

We did employ a family business counselor for several years. Her name was Bonnie Brown Hartley and she was good for us. We met once a month for a session she ran. At one point that was me and my wife and a son, and later our son left but we had two daughters and their husbands involved. The family meetings were a useful format.

The best thing Bonnie did for us was insist on a written family business code of conduct. I won’t pretend we never broke it, but it was a good idea.



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