Entrepreneur's Diary, Chapter 42, Family Business
HOMEBusiness Journal – March/April 2004
Ah, a family-owned business...working together to build a future for everyone involved. Morning breakfast meetings, late night planning sessions, the security of knowing that everyone involved is on the same page with the same focus and commitment. Can anything be sweeter, more rewarding or less stressful than working with relatives?
Sounds too good to be true, and that's because it is. When you get involved in a family-run operation – or when you involve relatives in your business – it can be difficult to separate work life from family life. Suddenly, last night's argument over who was in charge of housework spills over into today's debate over who is handling the bookkeeping. And problems at work, like unwelcome house guests, have a nasty tendency to hang around far too long, becoming part of the dinner table conversation and beyond.
For several years, now, my husband and I have been working together. And while it's been wonderful to share successes, the atmosphere has, at times, gotten more than a little tense when we are both struggling with the demands of a growing business. But, according to family business experts, our situation is not unique.
"Running or working in a family business at home could be the best of all worlds – and also the most challenging," says syndicated columnist James Lea, a family business speaker, author and advisor who is also a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "People often have difficulty keeping family issues at home and out of the workplace. That can become even more difficult when the home is the workplace."
Sometimes, the conflict is about who is "in charge," resulting in a power struggle that is detrimental to both the company and the relationship. Other times, problems can surface when a family member simply isn't able, or willing, to handle his or her individual responsibilities. And unlike companies where you can simply terminate non-productive employees, never seeing them again, "firing" a family member can make holiday get-togethers more than a little uncomfortable.
Does this mean that working with a spouse, child or relative is doomed to failure? Not at all, says Lea who offers the following advice: "My best suggestion for making a home-based family business work smoothly and happily is to draw the clearest possible distinction between everyone's roles in the business and their roles in the home and family. 'This is my office (not the spare bedroom) and these are my business partners or employees (not my spouse or kids).' Sustaining those distinctions takes mental discipline and understanding all around, but it's worth the effort." But, he adds, "don't forget to turn that objectivity off when the work day is over. And, by the way, be sure you know when the work day is over and when that conference, the place for business decisions and activity, turns back into the kitchen table, the place for family togetherness."
Owners of Becker Marketing Group in North Canton, Ohio, Glen and Vickie Becker have been business partners for almost 14 years. The positive aspects of working with a family member, says Vickie, is that "there's a trust inherent in our relationship that would take a very long time to build. There's also a built-in respect for the other partner's sense of responsibility to family and other interests or obligations that will take him/her away from the office. My partner knows me well enough to encourage (push?) me to take on new challenges; that gives me courage. I'm not afraid to try my own wings."
"If there's been a down side," she adds, "it's that business can consume down-time conversation, too. We're less likely to do business planning/update/strategy/review during the work day – we can save that for after hours."
This can extend business hours into a 24/7 schedule – a surefire path to burnout. Warns Susan Evans, president of Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Evans Larson Communications, "You have to put boundaries on when and when not to talk about work, otherwise it can eat into family time.
"She notes that conflict resolution runs both ways. Getting angry and resolving it in time for family get-togethers can be the biggest challenge of working with relatives. But just as critical is to "make clear lines between 'church and state.' Don't let family issues run over into the workplace. It makes non-family people uncomfortable."
The hardest part, Vickie says, "has been to divide the responsibilities in such a way that each of us is able to flourish in the areas to which we're best suited. And it's hard sometimes to keep business separate from personal life, especially at performance review time or if we disagree. You know, we tend to take criticism more personally than we would from a non-family member."
What's the biggest reward?
"Oh, to watch the incredible growth of our business, to know how much we've grown professionally (especially me!), to see how our family has blossomed in this environment. We were a home-based business long before it was trendy," she adds. "We've worked hard and been very lucky. I've been especially fortunate – my partner has a unique and wonderful talent for this business. It's been a joy to watch and learn from him, to be an integral part of what could have been a separate and distinct part of his life."
"A family business has all the right ingredients to make up a winning team: a defined leader; a sense of commitment to a goal; a small, tightly knit group; some measure of creativity; a sense of spirit and an awareness that cooperation is necessary in order to produce a 'whole that is greater than the sum of its parts,'" writes Aron Pervin, in his article: "Team Building in the Family Firm".
"Building an effective team within a family firm requires attention to both family and business matters in the context of what factors contribute to an active and competent team. Acting as a team, the family in business together benefits as a business, benefits as a family and benefits as individual family members."
TIPS FOR WORKING WITH FAMILY
- Clarify responsibilities and expectations, and establish timelines and deadlines. This creates a sense of teamwork as well as keeping everyone "in the loop."
- Respect each other's approach to business situations and value the individual strengths each party brings to the table.
- Make sure that there are plenty of positive interactions outside of the business. While discussing business matters at all hours of the day or night can be tempting, it's important to reaffirm the other aspects of the relationship.
- If discussions become heated or personal, agree to postpone further talk until the next day. Sometimes, once emotions have calmed down, you can reach a resolution that will satisfy all parties involved.
- Don't sacrifice your family relationship for the business. Companies come and go but family is forever.
A columnist for HOMEBusiness Journal, Nancy Christie also contributes regularly to consumer and trade magazines, and is currently working on several book projects. Her company, Professional Writing Services (www.writing-pro.com) helps companies communicate their message with creative and compelling copy. Christie can be reached via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.