03 June 2015

Do you work with family, friends or lovers (or all three)? Need some advice?

If you own your own business it is only a matter of time until you find yourself working with a family member, a friend or even lover (or two). Whilst there are many upsides, there can also be some very deep and dark pitfalls.

Small business has traditionally revolved around this family centric model. Family members were enlisted to work in the family business, simply because they were available, they could be trusted (generally) and they would work for very long hours for very little money. If the business made money they shared the rewards and if times were tough, they tightened their belts and did what they could to help it survive.

The following advice comes from my own experiences as well as the experience of many people I have met and worked with who have family, friends or lovers working in their business:

1. Set the ground rules and make them clear.

Even if you already have your family business up and running, it is never too late to make the time to set the ground rules so everyone knows what is expected of them. A lack of ground rules or clarity around expectations leads to all kinds of problems and confusion – spell them and put them in writing to leave no room for confusion.

2. Good pillow talk versus bad pillow talk.

OK, hopefully we all know what good pillow talk is, but bad pillow talk is an in depth profit and loss discussion in bed. We need to have very clear boundaries between the business and the bedroom so to speak. Couples that work together can easily slip into the routine of talking about the business all the time. Make time that is “business free” talk time.

3. We need clear roles and responsibilities within the business.

This might sound obvious but a lack of clarity around who does what and who is responsible for what are two of the biggest causes of friction in family run businesses. So spend some time working this out early in the piece and then let people do their job.

4. We need to have time apart and outside interests.

From my observations (and experience) when you live and work together you can easily stop having your own life and interests outside of the business and the relationship. Making time just for you and your own interests is vital. It isn’t being selfish it is being smart.

5. Have a way to solve disagreements (ideally before they happen).

Having a mechanism to solve conflict is vital in any partnership but often family run businesses haven’t figured out how to do this, especially if there are only two people in the business who are equal partners. In the past I have used a third person as an adjudicator – whenever there was a problem that we couldn’t resolve, we went to our adjudicator to cast the deciding vote.

6. Have a clear vision on where the business is heading and make sure everyone knows about it.

Time needs to be spent ensuring that everyone in the business is clear about where the business is heading. Clarity is not a sign on the wall with some corny mission statement, clarity is sharing dreams, aspirations, goals and expectations. Sometimes it is surprising to see just how aligned your dreams are and sometimes it is scary to see just how misaligned they are. Clearly the later can lead to big issues so it is better to find out early on.

7. Accept that we all work, think and act differently – and that is OK.

We have to accept that other members of the team will want to do things their own way, and we need to be able to share our experience, but also give them the room, the space and the respect to do things their own way.

8. Know your strengths, know your weaknesses and be big enough to admit to both.

This is a golden rule for success in any business but particularly so in family businesses. We can’t be good at everything and any business that works to an individuals strengths is always going to be more successful than one where the wrong people are doing the wrong jobs.

9. Never stop having fun, playing and most importantly, celebrating your victories.

One of the upsides of working with family, friends and lovers is that you are working with people you really like (hopefully). It is important that we keep a fun and playful environment happening. Too many businesses become very serious and this seriousness then gets taken into the home environment as well. Celebrate loud and celebrate often.

10. If you leave the business, leave the business.

Selling the business to younger family members is a common form of succession planning, but a lot of people struggle to let go once they have taken the leap. By all means you have a lot of experience to offer, but you have to come up with a way to share that experience in a positive way that helps the business to grow but also lets the newer members of the business to put their own ideas into practice. After all, one day you won’t be around, and they will be left on their own.

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