Lessons Learned

When It Comes to the Family Business, Explore All Your Options


While we often think of family-run enterprises as corner mom-and-pop shops, more than one-third of the S&P 500 are family-owned. Companies as significant as media giant Comcast are family-owned. Mars, the food manufacturer, is also family-owned. Ford Motor Co. still retains family leadership, and, of course, there’s always Walmart, owned and operated by the Walton family.

As many family-business consultants will affirm, family-owned companies can be incredibly complex. Due to the overlap of roles between owners, employees, board members, and family, there is frequently a lack of clarity surrounding fundamental business facets and processes, including job responsibilities, performance expectations, individual development and advancement, as well as compensation policies, among many others.


Michael Klein

Michael Klein

Add in a variety of topics that are often undiscussable — including substance abuse, estate planning, share transfers, leadership succession, and many others — and one can often find a tornado of conflict and emotion just waiting to touch down.

The more mature (i.e., older) a family business is, the more likely that lessons have been learned from generation to generation. However, no matter how old a family business may be, complexity is always present. Unfortunately, the individual family member often loses out due to the greater issues of family and business. Many, if not most, family-business consultants focus their attention on maintaining engagement and involvement, maximizing the business while understanding the family dynamics. Few are focused on what is in the best interest of an individual.

Family-business processes, systems, strategies, and planning are all critical issues if the business is to survive and thrive. A focus on individual interests, growth, satisfaction, and development comes only after larger issues are addressed. Sadly, the individual family member can become an afterthought.

Consider the prevalence of this theme of family-business expectations for employment versus individual talents, desires, and dreams. Many recent children’s movies are centered fundamentally around the individual’s conflict with family legacy, tradition, and power. As just one example, Brave’s Merida is pressured to follow in her mother’s footsteps (and the family business) as a properly behaved queen despite her desire for very ‘unqueenly’ activities and passions.

Back in the real world, however, decisions about family-business employment are far more complicated and have more than one side to the story.

Three Perspectives

In my research, as well as experience with family-business clients, the following three perspectives are exceedingly common but rarely discussed openly, thoroughly, or objectively:

• As an active member of the family business: “Is this the best path for me going forward?”
• As a current family-business owner or parent: “What is the role of the family business in the future of my children?”
• As a next-generation member: “Should I join the family business?”

With each of these perspectives comes the underlying question, is this the best fit between person and career/job? The answer doesn’t fall out of the sky, but requires patience, tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to change direction when needed.

Quick decisions should be avoided at all costs. The following is a sample of some of the questions each constituency should start asking, followed by some important things to remember.

Questions for active family-business members include:

• How satisfying is my current role?
• Do I have options to change my role?
• Which family relationships are most important to me?

Keep in mind, nobody can decide your path for you. There are always pros and cons to any decision or change. You owe it to yourself and your family to either fully engage or disengage from the business sooner or later.

Questions for owners/parents include:

• What would make me most satisfied for my children?
• What skills, talents, or interests do they have that might fit well in the family business?
• Am I considering other options for my children?

Keep in mind, your own feelings about the business may be very different from your son or daughter. If your child decides not to join initially, they might be interested when they are older. In the meantime, be as objective as you can about your child’s personality, skills, interests, and motivations.

Questions for next-generation family members include:

• What excites me about the family business?
• What traits or skills do I have that will contribute to the business?
• Is there something I would be giving up if I joined?

Try as best you can to separate the idea of being a member of your family from working in the family business. Focus on understanding and developing your skills, not making a lifelong commitment to one path or another. You probably won’t have all the answers about what you may want from work until you have worked for a while.

Go with the Flow

Regardless of what the genetic lottery hands us at birth, our personal and professional experiences should result in new insights into who we are and what we are capable of. As our work lives progress, we should be able to develop new skills and abilities, as well as perhaps discover interests and passions we didn’t know we possessed. Ultimately, our jobs and other professional experiences should guide us toward finding out where our true strengths and talents lie.

For some, the family business provides an unmatched arena for this type of professional development. Unfortunately, for far too many, the family business stands directly in the way of this — and, as a result, it stands in the way of healthy adult development.

Family businesses are wonderful career and professional opportunities for many family members. While it is not a secret that the primary beneficiaries of arranged marriages are the families, we do not as easily admit this is often the case in family-business employment.

Family businesses can be wonderful opportunities for professional and personal growth, satisfaction, and success. But they should never be the only option. n

Michael Klein, PsyD, is a business consultant and author of Trapped in the Family Business: A Practical Guide for Uncovering and Managing This Hidden Dilemma. He holds a doctoral degree in professional and applied psychology, and supports family businesses and their advisors by providing assistance in the hiring, management, and development of leaders, managers, and employees. He has more than 20 years of experience working in multiple industries, including manufacturing, insurance, healthcare, construction, financial services, education, pharmaceuticals, real estate, and entertainment; mkinsights.com;trappedinthefamilybusiness.com

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