Today is Family Business Day, a day to acknowledge family run businesses and the role they play within the community. To acknowledge this, I’m providing a little advice to help people navigate what can be wonderful yet compl
If you own your own business, it is generally only a matter of time until you find yourself working with either family members, friends or a lover or two. In many ways business has always been that way. Family members in particular were enlisted to work in the ‘family business’, simply because they were there, could be trusted (generally) and would work for very long hours for little money.
There are some wonderful upsides to working with family, friends or lovers. I worked with my former wife in our marketing company and it really was great. We were both totally committed to the business, we had lots of fun every single day, and we had each other’s best interests at heart. Unfortunately, we were better at working together than we were at being married. In saying that, no one had ever taught us how to work together, we were just figuring it out as we went and, like most couples who work together, we made plenty of mistakes.
Today I work with many family-based businesses. It might be a husband and wife team, a father and son combo, or a mother and daughter enterprise. There are certainly great upsides, but there are some pretty big pitfalls along the way. Likewise, most small businesses in particular need extra help from time to time and business owners are more likely to employ someone they know, a friend generally, to lend a hand. Once again, there are many upsides to doing this, but be warned that dangers are also lurking close by.
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.
- Set the ground rules and make them clear
Regardless of your relationship with whoever is going to be working in your business, it is really important that the ground rules are established and that they are clear to all involved.
Ground rules are the fundamentals of the business that apply to every single person employed, and they really should not be different for family members or friends, otherwise resentment will build up with ‘regular’ workers.
I would go one step further and make certain the ground rules are written down. Everyone involved needs to read them, agree to them and sign a copy. They can cover important topics like behaviour, commitment to customers, ethical considerations, operational issues, expectations and anything else where there could be some ambiguity.
You choose what the ground rules are, or develop them together with your employees if you are new to the business world. Review them when you need to and discuss them openly if there are issues.
Things that are left unsaid and blurred boundaries are the enemies of any business that involves family, friends and lovers.
- Good pillow talk versus bad pillow talk
I think we know what good pillow talk is so I won’t go into detail, but here are a few examples of ‘bad pillow talk’:
‘Honey, can you pass me the calculator and the profit and loss report from 2020?’
‘Oh baby, why didn’t you get that package to the freight forwarders this afternoon? This was your
only responsibility today and you let us down again.’
‘You dirty boy—why don’t you take better care of your overalls? If I have to tell you one more time
that you look like a slob . . .’
‘Hey, let’s get naked and go through all our bills!’
‘In tomorrow’s staff meeting, how about we . . .’
Hopefully my lame examples illustrate the point. Some of you may laugh, but I have certainly been in the situation where my partner and I have climbed into bed, the candles are lit, Barry White is playing, there is an abundance of atmosphere, then one of us asks a (dumb) question that starts a business conversation and ends with the mood being well and truly killed. Bedrooms are for sleeping and other very specific activities—not for Excel spreadsheet discussions.
The moral of this point is very simple: we need to have razor-sharp boundaries between work and home. This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about work-related things at home, in fact, I think it’s essential to talk about worky stuff when you are away from the business, but we need to set boundaries. Limit the amount of time you talk about work, say what needs to be said, and then move on. It can take a bit of discipline because most of us ‘think and spurt’, we get a thought and then spit it out.
Something I learned to do was to keep a notepad in the kitchen, and if I had a work thought I would write it down, build a list and, at a scheduled ‘business meeting time’ at home, we could run through my list and my partner’s.
Do whatever works for you, but please make certain that you have a system of some sort. Acknowledge your relationship, honour it and treat it as a priority. If the foundation is good, most other things will work well. And next time you find yourself having inappropriate pillow talk, make a mental note, laugh out loud, talk to your spouse and discuss how to avoid it.
- Establish clear roles and responsibilities within the business
Of all the pieces of advice I can offer, this is probably the most important for husband and wife teams: we need to have very clear roles and responsibilities within the business. Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t step in and lend a hand when needed, or that we don’t have the capability to do every part of the business, but we really need our own specific part of the business to be in charge of. Whenever I work with a family business that is having trouble, it is generally because there are no clear boundaries.
Instead everyone does a bit of everything and it leads to all kinds of problems. The most successful family-based businesses are the ones where roles are divided in some way: for example, the husband takes care of the books and paying the bills and the wife is the doer, the person who deals with the customers or makes the product.
If you are planning on starting a business with your partner or a family member, take the time to sit down and work out who will be responsible for what. Even if you have been running your business for a while and you feel that the boundaries are blurred, sit down and do it now. The same applies if you employ a friend to come and work in your business. It is all about managing expectations.
Sometimes you may need to change these roles and responsibilities. I know that over the years I have ended up in charge of parts of my business that I am really not very good at, but I had to give it a go to find that out. The point here is to be prepared to speak up if something isn’t working and come up with an alternative.
Finally, don’t micromanage. Don’t give someone responsibility and then watch every single thing they do like a hawk, adding comments all the way about how you would do it or, even worse, how they should do it. If they come to you for advice, by all means offer it. But unless you enjoy frosty responses, let family or friends do what they have been empowered to do, even if they do it differently to you.
- Have time apart and outside interests
When I worked with my wife, the only real time we had apart was when we got into our separate cars and drove to work. As we only lived about ten minutes from the business, that is not a long time to have your own thoughts.
When we work with our partners we tend to become the one organism and, as I would continually emphasise, there are wonderful upsides with this, but it can be tough.
I know many couples who work in a business together and actually take their holidays separately each year, just so they can get a break from each other. To me this is tragic, but I understand it and certainly empathise with them.
I believe that it is vitally important to have time apart and to have your own life outside of your business. All too often our businesses take over our lives and we stop doing the things we love to do, like hobbies and even socialising with people who aren’t involved in the business. This ‘cutting off’ is not good in the long run. One day we stop, look around and ask ourselves, ‘Is this all there is?’ In other words, if your life is all about your business it may initially be good, even great, but at some point there will be a sense of all work and no play, which leads to the question: ‘why are we doing this?’
Breaking old habits can be tough. Sometimes we have to remember how to have outside interests and hobbies, or even that we do love to do other things. The best way to approach this is in baby steps. Maybe take a morning off by yourself once a week where you can do anything you like, and then get your partner to do the same.
However you approach this, you need to do it. For husband and wife teams it is essential, but I see it as being a necessity for parents and their adult kids working together as well. If you don’t, it will almost certainly lead to problems either in the business or in the relationships over time.
- Solve disagreements (ideally before they happen)
A very big issue, particularly in businesses with two family members as partners, is resolving disagreements. If you both have equal say and you both disagree about some aspect of the business, how do you resolve this?
Typically what happens is the dominant person gets their way and the more submissive person gets resentful. Give it time and this relationship will end in tears. A person can only give in so many times, and just because you are louder or more assertive doesn’t mean you are right.
One idea that I have found very handy is to have a third party adjudicator to resolve issues. Both partners need to agree on who that person is and they have to agree to accept the outcome. You also need to find the right person to be the adjudicator. They need to know you both, be fair and ethical, smart, business savvy and trustworthy—a big ask.
When an issue arises that you both feel strongly about, you get to pitch your case to the adjudicator and they decide. And you must abide by the end result. You may be surprised how much better you become at resolving issues when there is the ‘threat’ of calling in the adjudicator.
This might not work for you, but whatever you do, remember that a dominant/submissive decision-making process leads to disconnection and power struggles within a relationship that ultimately play out in non-productive ways. Come up with a way to vote, resolve issues or make big decisions within your business. Everyone has to agree on the process, and they have to do this willingly. Then get on with getting on.
- Have a clear vision of where the business is heading and make sure everyone knows about it
When working with a family-based business and talking to the individuals about where the business is heading and their big picture for the future, I am often surprised to find that there is no one clear vision but rather a range of quite different visions.
This ‘big picture’ view of the business is really important. It gives a reason for doing what we do, and most importantly a clear direction. Visions change over time and that is okay, but when there are numerous people involved the vision needs to be known by all. Ideally everyone in the business should share in creating the vision—it is really the only way to get ‘buy in’ from your staff. Putting a piece of paper on the table and saying, ‘Here is our vision, make it happen,’ rarely creates the desired outcome, unless it is done in a smarter way than that.
The key here is to first figure out where you are right now. Do you have a vision for the future? If you do, is it a combined vision or just yours, and the others are along for the ride? If you don’t have a vision, now is the time to create one, with everyone involved.
- Accept that we all work, think and act differently—and that is okay
Earlier in this chapter I briefly mentioned the need to appreciate the differences our family, friends and lovers bring when we are working with them, but I think that it warrants more discussion. I encounter many families that drive each other crazy because they can’t accept that we all work differently. The fact is that it is not just okay to be different, it is highly desirable.
Businesses rarely grow if they don’t evolve. The way they evolve is by trying new things, being receptive to new ideas and appreciating the unique qualities that we all bring to the table. This is imperative when it comes to working with family, friends and lovers.
Earlier I also mentioned the habit of people moaning about the new generations coming through, particularly generation Y, who always seem to bear the brunt of criticism (mostly from people with grey hair). The reality is that we will never change generation Y and nor should we. I find them amazing—they are exceptional entrepreneurs who are very good at communicating among themselves, they don’t like wasting their time and they have high expectations of those they work for. I don’t actually see any problem with these characteristics. The real key here is to work to their strengths, not to their weaknesses.
Any business that has lots of long-winded, waste-of-time meetings will not appeal to generation Y. Any business owner who is a control freak will struggle with generation Y. Any business that doesn’t have a well-structured career path, with constantly increasing expectations and matching rewards, will struggle with generation Y.
You might decide that this is all too hard and of course that is your choice, but businesses that embrace this generation and learn to work with their strengths, instead of moaning about their perceived short- comings, are getting incredible results.
Embrace ‘different’. Give people the space they need to do what they do best. Be patient and provide guidance rather than control. This will create a culture that leads to a very successful and rock-solid business.
- Know your strengths, know your weaknesses and be big enough to admit to both
To work with family, friends or lovers we need a degree of humility, and that manifests most clearly when it comes to knowing what we are good at, what we are not so good at and what this means to the business.
Leading on from the last tip, as much as we need to accept others, we really do need to know ourselves. You might love doing one particular job within the business, but are you really that good at it and—logically extending the question—are you the best person to be doing it?
Having an honest internal discussion with yourself about your own strengths and weaknesses is important. A really well-run business that is bound to be successful is one which combines the right people with the right tasks or responsibilities within it. All too often I see people who are not working to their individual strengths, in fact the exact opposite: the entire business seems hell-bent on working to everyone’s weaknesses.
Once you think that you are pretty clear on your own strengths and weaknesses, have an open and honest conversation with your family and see if they agree. This is an excellent group exercise and each family member (or friend, in particularly small businesses) should be able to have a very honest and open discussion around this topic, with the goal being to work to each individual’s strength. I have seen this completely transform numerous businesses over-night.
- Never stop having fun, playing, and, most importantly, celebrating your victories
When you work with family, friends or lovers, the lines between home and work are often blurred and can roll into one. It’s great when families have a lot of fun together and celebrate their successes within the business. But over time, as the pressure of business builds, the fun and celebration can end, both in the business and at home.
Fun and playfulness are vital for stress relief, and working with loved ones can certainly be stressful, especially in your own business. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves to lighten up, relax and not take things overly seriously. If you own the business, you are the business barometer, a point I have made earlier in this book. If you are stressed out and serious all the time, everyone else will be walking on eggshells and feeling equally as stressed. This is not an environment conducive to long-term business success.
We also need to make sure we celebrate our victories, both large and small, on a regular basis. Acknowledge where you have come from, the things you have accomplished and the fact that you achieved these things together.
10. If you leave the business, leave the business
I actually suggest that every year you make a point of picking a date, getting together with everyone involved in your business, in particular your family members, and listing everything you have achieved together in the past year. Acknowledge your successes and the roles that specific individuals have played, and laugh about your challenges and what they taught you. But most importantly of all, spend time appreciating each other, thanking each other, loving each other and laughing with each other.
If you decide that the time has come to leave the business and perhaps hand over the reins to your children or other family members, make sure you actually do so: it is a recipe for disaster to tell them you are handing over control but then continue to interfere.
Of course, your expertise and knowledge of the business is priceless, but just as we have to let our children figure out their own way in the world, the same applies to whomever we entrust to take on the business.
A lot of older business owners really do struggle with this. I have seen wonderful transitions where the founders of the business embrace the change and get excited about the new directions, initiatives and ideas that come with handing over to a new generation. But at the same time I have seen businesses literally tear themselves apart because a matriarch or patriarch can’t let go.
If you make the decision to leave the business, then make sure you leave the business. If you can’t let go, take a long holiday. Accept that the business will be different without you, not better or worse, just different.
These 10 strategies can help most people navigate their way through working with family, friends and lovers. For me to the moral to the story is to focus on the positives of working with family, friends and lovers – and there are many. But be prepared for some of the challenges that come from working in this territory. Enjoy!