The secret to “swimming” in a family business
How to join your own family business like a fish in water and develop soundly? The premise is to fully grasp the correct keywords and their connotations.
Choosing to work in your own family business is often full of tension. Regarding whether to join the family business, family members have experienced hidden pressures and encountered conflicts between dreams and family expectations. How do you decide whether to work in your own family business? When it comes to actually jumping in, is there a successful strategy or method for them to take on a leadership role in the family business?
After surveying five family business members from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, France, and Argentina, the researchers identified a number of key words that recurred throughout family business careers: family and self-identity, values and culture, emotional control, attitudes to change ,communicate.
Family and Self-Identity
The family name—in the form of family figures, mentors, and “aggressors,” as well as the invisible but ever-present sense of belonging and parental pressure—affects family members both externally and internally.
For Andreas from Argentina, both his father and grandfather had a strong belief in being part of the family business empire, often repeating the adage that “being included in the family is both an honor and a responsibility”. When Andreas joined his family construction company, his initial motivation was to make a name for himself – to work hard, learn more, prove himself. But he eventually left the family business for an MBA at INSEAD and then a consultant at Boston Consulting Group. This distance has allowed him to develop healthier relationships and boundaries with loved ones and to “reconnect” to his authentic, inner self.
However, it is not impossible to maintain the identity of family and self, and even develop together. In Marco’s Filipino family, the right path is believed to be “do your best, succeed in a big company, climb the ladder, and prove yourself first”. When Marco finally joined the family business, he brought energy to the family business, bringing the entire family group together through best business practices and pushing the company into new territories. He developed a number of new long-term visions for the business that were more aligned with his interests while keeping the business largely stable.
Values and Culture
The right values and culture can make people feel deeply meaningful at work. But when a family member’s values and culture diverge from those of the family business, tension can result.
When Emilie, from a French family business, tried unsuccessfully to persuade her family to adopt better management practices, she resigned. She was disappointed and frustrated not to see the fruits of her labor. “No one ever said I couldn’t stay, but I couldn’t accept taking a position that didn’t align with their values.” She always wanted to put the overall interest first and avoid conflicting environments.
For Sri Lanka’s Shiraz, he likes to learn by doing and cherishes the freedom to make mistakes. When he joined the family tea export business, his family was very open about how he learned. “They were happy to support me, but they also believed that I had to learn on my own, at my own risk.” He took the opportunity to hone his entrepreneurial skills, launching an innovative tea extracts company three or four years later.
Controlling Emotions Emotions tend to be heightened
in a family business environment, largely due to the tension between freedom of choice and a sense of honor and responsibility. Furthermore, human relationships make it difficult to separate reason and emotion. Whether or not family members are in the family business, about to join or have already left, there is a pervasive feeling that “you’re never really leaving”.
Gabbie in the Philippines was lucky enough to be free to pursue her own business for 14 years outside of the family business, although she is keenly aware that she will one day be a part of the family business. Other family members joked that Gabbie’s current career was “just entertainment” and that one day she would inevitably tire.
For Emilie, her experience was even more intense. For her, the family business is an environment in which it is “impossible to remove the emotional element”. After experiencing the tension in the family business, she learned that strategy doesn’t matter if conflicts aren’t resolved, and logic has no value if no one is listening.
get ready for change
Change is inevitable as younger generations bring new ideas and aspirations. Family members who gain knowledge and experience from outside the family business often become champions of change—though the value they bring can be perceived differently between generations.
Andreas left the family’s building materials business to study for an MBA at INSEAD and then worked at Boston Consulting Group, which gave him a new perspective on the family’s building materials business. “When you’ve been working in a family business, you don’t see some things that need to be seen, so coming out of the family business taught me a lot,” he reflects. He realized that the playbook the family had been following was no longer working: “We needed to avoid missing out on new opportunities. I wanted to shape the family business in a new way.” When part of the family tea company was
sold, Shiraz knew a change was needed up. He is eager to get out of Sri Lanka and learn from the world. So, he pursued an MBA to learn how to infuse professionalism and quality into a business. After a period of withdrawal and reflection, Shiraz came back with greater confidence, ability and energy to drive change, with the goal of expanding the business into new markets around the world.
Communication, communication, and communication
In communication, “hidden rules” are ubiquitous, including many aspects, such as the reasons for joining or staying in the company, and related responsibilities and honors.
In Andreas’ experience, he was challenged to share ways to improve the family business and learn from family members without appearing arrogant. He reflects: “Achieving mutual respect requires a great deal of humility, transparency and communication that most families don’t have.” He realizes that his narrative isn’t all “right” and the only way to do that is by being conscious and radical comminicate.
Clear communication is critical in the process of implementing change. As Shiraz’s family business has experienced considerable growth, younger members of his generation have continued to join the business. Shiraz was careful to communicate the talent strategy they were developing, how family members, with or without their involvement, would ensure the company’s existence for generations to come. He made it clear that the family values of “honesty, integrity and fair dealing” must be maintained at all costs.
Workplace rules for family businesses
1. Know what’s at stake, make smart use of family rules, traditions, spoken or unspoken rules, and at the same time, challenge to use the “right” language.
2. Distinguish the value that each generation brings or has brought, and play to the strengths of each generation, while recognizing the need to evolve.
3. Communicate with all family stakeholders to clarify what was not said and to build consistency and trust.
4. Understand that there is no absolute correlation between being a family member and being able to contribute well to the business, but look for places where you can contribute.
5. Recognize that time outside the enterprise is valuable for experience, perspective and innovation.
6. Consider your contributions to the family, both in and out of “business.”
1. Don’t think your beliefs about “family culture” are the only ones that are true.
2. Don’t take uninclusive actions. Feeling seen, heard and heard is critical to all family stakeholders, even though everyone’s expectations will be different.
3. Don’t assume that your ideas about corporate longevity and sustainability are widely accepted. What inspired your grandmother may now no longer inspire your father or aunt.
4. Don’t tie the company’s value to blood ties.
5. Don’t blindly leave for a period of time without thinking about the value of doing so and what your ultimate return will be before leaving.
6. Don’t suffer too much without dealing with disagreements and misunderstandings.
Let the spark last forever
Recognizing the key words “family and self-identity, values and culture, emotional control, attitudes towards change, communication” and looking at them objectively can bring clear understanding to family members and help non-family members Grasp the direction of the enterprise. In other words, these keywords can help the employees of the family business to be more dynamic.
Peugeot, Kikkoman, the Tata Group and the Ford Motor Company, among others, have all demonstrated that family businesses can survive for hundreds of years, some even more than 1,000. Today, family businesses continue to play an important role in the economic development of countries. Family businesses will continue to be the engine of growth in many economies if family members are allowed to thrive in the family business, with due consideration given to succession strategy and planning.