Tips for Fixing the Family Business

One of my first jobs after coming back from the United States Marines Corps was an inside sales job, downtown in a family-owned men’s clothing store.

I had no preconceived notions. In fact, I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to earn money and I was determined to do my best. However, it did not go well. After spending four years in the Marines in the Vietnam era and coming out a sergeant, I could take orders well. I was polite.

I said, “Sir.” What I wasn’t ready for was having multiple bosses, aged 16 to 60. I figured the oldest was the big boss and the youngest, but I had the least say since I was not family. Imagine “the few, the proud, the chosen” sweeping the walk and hanging up clothes in the back and being ordered about by a 16-year-old. I didn’t last long, but then again family-own jobs are not only the hardest to work for, they are the hardest to run. And, of course, our main question here: are they hard to train?

The communication and leadership dynamics are all different. In a regular business, bosses are selected based on a different criteria, albeit sometimes not the best if they are just the money man, but more often as not because they are good at what they do managing others and leading a business or company. In the military, setting the example and inspiring others, takes precedence or leadership over management skills. In fact, management is often delegated to the executive officer. In government, politics has a hand at the top promoting the Administration’s agenda, while civil servants get the job done; most of us would not agree that lt is probably always the most efficient, but in some ways the system offers a satisfaction other than financial. For non-profits, the system involves yet another dynamic of working with volunteers; however, family businesses run the gamut depending on individual wishes, love of the work and fear of disappointing loved ones–just to name a few.

According to Family Business USA, “Being in a family business is hard as it requires the balancing of the unconditional love and support as a family member with the operational and profit requirements of a business. It is no wonder that over 65% of family businesses across the USA do not survive to the next generation.”

So what can you do if you if you a part of a family business, and you find you hate going to work. You would love to leave and find your own niche, but you’ve worked hard here. However, there is no promotion because there are older siblings ahead of you–the family dynamic–who may not be as qualified as you. Naturally this where it gets sticky.

The best way to keep from having the family issues come up is to treat the family business as though it is a business without the family.

Hanna Hasl-Kelchner of has the right idea. She says for any business, and it is goes for a family business here as well, to thrive it needs to be:

  1. Using communication channels wisely, such as using a letter instead of a Twitter-style text message to accurately convey subtle or complex thoughts;
  2. Keeping communications respectful, constructive, and professional;
  3. Sticking to business and keeping sensitive information confidential; and
  4. Always striving for clarity and accuracy to avoid misunderstandings that can escalate into disputes. which says it offers unique career advice with an edge, gives us five tips for working for the family business that goes more into the family dynamic and is less black. In my mind, I’d say both views are right, you have to maintain perspective and boundaries at all times. I always say I offer advice from a variety of perspectives so you can see what works best for you. Here they are…

I have seen some family businesses that seem to have so much fun working together that it seems such a neat idea, then I remember the times my wife and I have been home at the same time. I work at home, and I realized how little I accomplished. So family can distract you from the job at hand. Also, being frustrated to get the job done can make family members feel the job comes first, when it should be family first. It’s true. You cover for family who are also colleagues; you probably wouldn’t do that anywhere else.

Sometimes the stress takes a toll on personalities, making the head honcho a tyrant, mom usually the concilitator getting in between her husband and everyone else; naturally the eldest brother and sister or aunt and uncle are in the middle. In-laws added to the mix make it more complicated. Have a problem with your sister-in-law, you can’t go to your brother. Or, if the problem is with your brother, you can’t have him fired, can you? “It can bring out the best in you and your relatives–and also the worst in your working relationships.”

Here are 5 tips to ensure that your family working environment remains as positive and healthy as possible.

1. Blood Is Thicker Than Water
Always remember that and speak to one another that way with respect and love.

2. Decide Who is Boss
The biggest issue is to decide the leadership. The usual default is to the patriarch of the family, but give this a lot of thought. This the person who will move the business forward and make final decisions–no questions asked. Don’t be fooled by loud and aggressive. There are different kinds of leadership styles. Make sure it is one that fits your family.

3. Set Boundaries
Work is work. Home is home. Keep the boundaries clear. We see a lot family cut ups on TV–more than we should. Talk about work at work and personal issues at home. Simple as that.

4. Don’t Bottle it Up
This more important than it seems. Don’t keep things in when they are bursting to get out. One day you will slip and say what you are really thinking. Don’t be cast out of the family and your job. Bring the issues out in the open in the appropriate forum.

5. Talk Like Family
Be open with one another as you always are, but communication is important. Again in the appropriate place. Talking about family like at work stresses the work environment and vice versa.

As trainers, I caution you anytime you are asked to work with a family business–not that it is the mafia or anything like it, but the emotions are volitile and there is no easy fix. You aren’t just dealing with the CEO here but an entire family with a range of emotions so do your research well.

For more resources about training, see the Training library.

That’s all for me now. A reminder: I do have a website where you can find other items I have written including coupons for my best selling, The Cave Man Guide To Training and Development and my novel about the near future, Harry’s Reality. Happy Training.

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