“Where is everyone? It’s Monday morning and the office is empty! We specifically talked about showing up on time when we were all at dinner yesterday. We need to treat this like a real business or we will never turn the profits we need!”
I think it’s safe to say that those of us in a family business want it to be successful—we want everyone there, ready to work on Monday mornings (and for the rest of the workweek too). This doesn’t happen by itself in any business, and particularly family business. It’s up to us as family business leaders to set up a clear structure for that success. This begins with separating the family and the business.
Research shows that successful family businesses establish strong boundaries between the business and the family; this separation is actually built into the culture. This means that business is business, and family is family. The lines are very clear to everyone. And each can thrive in their own right.
Respecting your business and honoring your family have huge payoffs. We all probably think we are doing this already but every year, family businesses fail and families falter with damaged relationships because some foundational rules were not created or integrated into practice in the organization.
How can we go about creating this important separation?
I once heard the question “what does the business need?” Simple but effective, this question drills right down to the necessary elements of a successful enterprise during working hours. It serves as a healthy reminder of the focus for the workday and a filter of what discussions, emotions and levels of professionalism are appropriate on the job.
By the same line of thought, we can ask “what does the family need?” while we are in our off hours with our family. The hours we spend with our families can be rather limited after work and school and all associated activities. Give your family the quality time they deserve by really listening and engaging in conversation that is not work-related and you will create strong roots and healthy identities.
Both the family business and family itself require a concerted effort and conscious thought towards keeping them going. The business runs well because appropriate structure, processes and goals have been put in place. Everyone is able to utilize their education, skills and acumen for the benefit of the business. In the off hours, the family provides a means of expressing yourself away from the job and a place to relax and unwind from the stress of the workweek. But in family business, these lines can become blurred—to the detriment of both the business and the family.
Here are some effective rules to keep business and family separate so that both can thrive:
1. Don’t discuss business problems at home.
In our work, family members disclose that they feel they never get a moment off from the business and that their family relationships revolve around the organization. Not only is it stressful to feel as if you’re always working, it means you don’t have the benefit of true relationships if your family is only seeing each other through the lens of the business. It’s essential to maintain free times to just relax and have normal family relationships. This time of being truly off brings renewed perspective and increased creativity and problem-solving ability when you do return to the office.
2. Don’t discuss family issues at work.
The reasons seem obvious—family issues are emotional, they are potentially distracting, they can involve sensitive, personal information, and they are inappropriate around non-family members of the business. Don’t fall into the trap—save these discussions for outside the office.
3. Do not use family nouns and nicknames at work. Such as: Dad, Sis, Junior, Sweetie.
At work, it’s about what each of us is doing for the business and acknowledging our professional skills, not about what our family roles are with each other. Showing respect for the other person and for the business is essential. This begins with a name and a professional attitude. Make no mistake, this practice also has a huge impact on non-family members working in the business.
4. Avoid putting family members in situations where a difficult dynamic can crop up.
Family members can be like elements on the periodic table—fine on their own but unstable and volatile when put together under pressure. For example, don’t put siblings—or anyone with a history of rivalry—in competitive situations where an unhealthy dynamic can rear its head. Be consistent and abundantly fair when giving feedback on performance and results so that no one feels singled out for either criticism or for being overly praised, making them a target for ill will. Don’t put your sister in the position of having to clean up or cover for your messes, even if she always filled that role for you growing up.
5. Set up policies for everyone to work by. And stick to them.
If chronic or avoidable lateness is not tolerated, then no one should be late, family and non-family alike. Deadlines are deadlines, agreements are agreements and clear work level expectations are held for everyone. We see a lack of policies time and again in our work with family business. You may think you’re avoiding difficult conversations to establish these types of policies, or creating a fun, casual atmosphere but let us assure you that you’ve made the work exponentially more difficult—and personal—by delaying the inevitable if you wait for bad situations to crop up.
If your brother Joe is prone to spur of the moment trips because the family knows “that’s just Joe,” make sure you have a policy of requesting time off in advance with a set number of vacation days. Without this, Joe will feel singled out when it has to come to an end while others will be angry that they’re stuck doing all the work while Joe has been away.
6. Always use a tone of respect and professionalism.
Speak and listen in a manner that shows your respect for everyone’s role in the organization, the situation and the business itself. If your tone is too familiar or casual, an opportunity for an important discussion could slip away or be dismissed. The way we address each other also brings out certain characteristics—and we all want our best talents to show up at work. You also can run the very real risk of others feeling excluded when you’re using a tone that’s too familiar with a family member.
7. Birth-order and gender don’t matter—real skills and strengths do.
Set aside family roles and acknowledge everyone’s training and expertise for their position, both when filling positions and when someone is doing their job. When seen and appreciated for what they bring to the organization, family and non-family alike are far more likely to reach their potential and perform at a level of their full capability. Your kid brother could have an eye for the numbers like no one else. Let him express and develop that and you have an engaged employee and a competitive edge for the business.
Bottom line, family business endures when we bring our best professional selves: both our own strengths and drive, along with our respect for others and the jobs they do, answering the question “what does the business need?” And everyone needs a family they can go home to and truly relax—a self that is not connected to the workday and where they can re-charge and connect on a deeper emotional level, listen and be supportive of other family members, answering the question “what does the family need?”