It's a Family Business

Recently, after I finished leading a workshop, a beleaguered looking attendee named Bob asked me for advice. After spending several minutes listening to his tale of woe, I stopped his monologue to ask a critical question. “Is this a family business with a couple of high school buddies tossed in for good measure?” The answer was a resounding “Yes!”

Because family relationships can become intertwined with business operations, a family business can drive anyone nuts and strain everyone’s patience.

If you have this problem, don’t despair. Many family businesses run smoothly and profitably. With imagination and fortitude, they have found ways to implement procedures that minimize family static. By finding ways to manage their business while nurturing important personal relationships, they succeed.

Let me share some techniques with you which I used to help the “Smith” family business.

First, you need to find an outside individual to facilitate the makeover. That’s the role I played — the neutral party, the referee, the one to call time-out, the one to ask some folks to be quiet and some to speak up, the one to identify any “elephants” in the room, etc. You get the drift.

Our work started with the planning process. We took time out, away from the daily stresses and strains, to look at what the business was doing, and more important, what it needed to do to support all the family members and their families. We finally agreed on sales volume, types of remodeling jobs to seek, and the needed profitability. We discussed in general terms what roles, such as sales, marketing, operations, finance, administrative, etc., the company needed to achieve the plan.

Then, I put blank sheets of paper on the wall, and we began to assign specific responsibilities to each family member; and equally important, the authority and specific responsibilities each person had within their job description. As you might expect, the interpersonal dynamics become pretty interesting at this point, but we worked it through. Think of the discussion going something like this: “What do you mean she gets to do that?” “Well, can you or anyone else do it?” “Well, no.” “So then, she gets to be responsible for this, and you need to stay out of her hair!”

Acting like a neutral, third party, the written job descriptions and the plan become touchstones which help family members focus on their business roles. So, instead of an argument, a conversation can go like this: “We agreed on the annual plan and what each of us needs to do to make it happen. I need to do this, and you need to do that, and we collaborate on these other things. So, unless you think we should go revisit the plan, let’s go get it done!”

I also insisted that the family institute a weekly management team meeting. The meeting creates a formal place for frequent communication. People bring up issues that surface during the week and discuss them from a business perspective. The meeting also becomes a weekly review of the annual plan. Remember, focusing on the annual plan helps to pull people out of the daily minutia of family roles and refocus them on their business roles.

With fits and starts, the “Smith” family eventually created a successful business that meets their needs. But, it took effort and commitment to make it happen. It has also, on occasion, required me, the referee, to come back to remind, nag, cajole and refocus everyone on the big picture.

Luckily, they won’t have to hear the advice I gave Bob.

“If you can’t make it work, go work elsewhere. There are lots of ways to make a living, but you only have one family, so don’t lose it. It is too high a price to pay for staying put.”