Attorney, Paradigm Counsel
Business is personal. And when it comes to family businesses, it’s very personal. As the CEO of my mother’s company, the manager of my spouse and the occasional contractor of my sister, I am often asked how I keep sane. After all, our families are the ones who can (and do!) push our buttons, much to our unending chagrin.
Here are a few strategies for family business owners to ensure that both the business and relationships stay on track.
1. Shift Your Approach
Several years ago, I heard about a father and son, who I’ll call Jim and Brian. Jim was the owner and CEO of a large manufacturing company and his son, Brian, the CFO. Two years after Brian started in the business, Jim discovered that Brian had embezzled funds. Not a good situation under any circumstances, and certainly more difficult given their relationship. But the way Jim handled it gave me a powerful insight that has changed how I approach the business and the family involved.
Jim invited Brian over to his home, sat him down, and put on a two-sided ball cap. On the front it read “CEO”. Jim calmly said, “Brian, it’s been brought to my attention that you have stolen funds from the company. You know that we have zero tolerance for theft and deceptive practices. Your last day was Friday… you are no longer an employee of the company.” He then spun his cap around and the word “Dad” appeared. Jim got up, sat next to Brian and said, “Son, I heard you just lost your job. I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do to help?” And he sincerely meant it.
Bottom line: when emotions are running high over any issue – whether it be related to finance, strategy, product, or where to locate the office (don’t laugh – it happens!) – it is too much for anyone to approach those issues wearing both “hats” simultaneously. You may have conflicting thoughts or feelings that would only muddy the issue, such as a father facing down the choice of either compromising ethics or firing his own son to preserve them. Rather, enter the conversation from the perspective required of you at that time. If you have an alternate answer as daughter, spouse, brother, etc., then offer that after your professional recommendation. It reminds them that while you may not back their actions or decisions, you still care deeply for them.
2. Seek New Perspectives
Whenever I am faced with one of those “record scratching” moments where a family member presents an absurd idea while spontaneously sprouting alien antennae, I remind myself of a few things. First, the person before me is human even though their ideas may strike me as otherworldly. Second, there is potential high value in their perspective, even though it is not currently visible to me. Third, my job is to make the best decisions for the organization, rather than be right.
Your best strategy is to become curious and seek to understand their perspective, especially when it isn’t resonating with you. No single person owns The Truth about the company. Rather, everyone owns a piece of the truth. So dig deep, ask questions, keep the conversation going, and welcome that which may be off-putting at first. You will be pleasantly surprised by how much your own learning is provoked and – equally important – your family member will feel heard and valued.
3. Resolve Issues Quickly
This may seem obvious, and yet I am consistently surprised at how many families allow conflicts, both professional and personal, to fester rather than act quickly to resolve them. We make assumptions that he or she should know that we dislike a certain practice, or that they should make the first move, simply because we’re family. Worse yet, we frequently have conversations about the situation with everyone except the person we need to confront.
The reality is that 99% of the time people’s intentions are good. The delivery may have been lacking, or our context of them is coloring their message. When these situations arise and emotions are high, get off email, step away from the water cooler, and have the conversation that has your name on it.
Halley Bock is the CEO of Seattle-based Fierce, Inc., a leadership and development training company that drives results for businesses by developing conversation as a skill.