By Jake Johnson
If you’ve worked with loved ones, you know that there are many pluses: a strong sense of camaraderie, a high level of trust and a long relational history that makes having discussions with candor easier to name a few.
But there are lots of minuses too. Because a family business is both “head” and “heart,” as a PWC 2014 Family Business Survey calls it. Focusing on both building the business and keeping peace with a loved one can be hard.
I’ve worked with family and friends for nearly half of my professional career. My first real job out of university was working at my uncle’s commercial real estate firm. Later, when I was a freelance writer and editor, he was my client as well (talk about dicey!). I also founded a successful creative agency with three close friends. Along the way, I learned a few lessons about how to work—and not work—with family and friends.
- Find Space for Objectivity
One of the hardest parts of working with close friends and family is creating objective spaces in the business. A smart business owner knows how to divine what conversations and decisions he or she should handle personally versus delegating to another person in the business.
As a fresh college graduate, when I asked my uncle if he had any positions at his company, he was excited at the prospect of me joining his firm. But he left the interview process and hiring decisions to another manager on his team, who had a clear directive to NOT show favoritism.
Other conversations that require this level of objectivity include discussions on compensation, promotions and even disciplinary actions.
Don’t have a team member who can be the objective counterpart? Consider involving a third-party mediator who can lay initial ground rules and call somebody out if those rules are impinged.
- Create Clear Areas of Ownership
Clearly defining areas of ownership in the business is as important as articulating the ground rules of that ownership.
I know the importance of this firsthand. When I started my agency with three close friends as partners, we didn’t clearly articulate who owned what areas of the business. This resulted in unnecessary conflict and frustration.
The lack of ownership and ground rules resulted in no clear way to rectify and bring closure to disagreements. So they often simmered in a stew of misunderstanding and assumption. Yuck!
Ultimately, this lack of clear ownership resulted in the dissolution of the partnership in an effort to preserve friendship. In hindsight, we would have been wise to do the hard work of defining roles and rules ahead of time.
- Utilize Indirect Management
I worked for my uncle for more than five years. Until the last year, I was managed by other leaders in the business. Not surprisingly, the last year was the most challenging.
Being managed by others allowed for mitigation both of accusations of favoritism and for drawing clear lines between business and family. It was only as I worked closer and closer with my uncle that comments like “heir apparent” started casually floating around. The personal difficulty in knowing how to relate to my uncle as both family and my boss grew immensely.
The closer one works with family members, the more opportunity there is for uncomfortable situations to arise. Creating indirect management avenues within the business allows for some distance between family and friends and greatly helps to mitigate these cases.
- Leave Shop Talk at the Office
This one is hard. When you spend so much time and energy building a business with loved ones, conversations outside the office naturally slide into shop talk. While it’s occasionally okay to dabble in business conversations outside the office, it’s important to intentionally limit them—especially during large family gatherings and the holidays. No one wants to hear you talk shop over Thanksgiving dinner!
Two important benefits come from this.
First, it recognizes that the relationship is richer than just a business one. The strength of family and friendship is a true bond created over a lifetime of shared interests, successes, struggles and joys. Continually talking about work quickly sucks the joy out of a relationship.
Second, it gives your other family members a break. Believe it or not, your spouse, your children and others close to you don’t care about your business like you do, and they don’t care to hear about it all the time. Both in friendship and family, your bonds extend beyond yourself. Respecting others in your circle includes limiting your business conversations outside the office. Everyone, including you, will be happier for it.
- Make Purpose the Boss
One friend of mine, who works in a family business, laments that his more-traditional father often stymies his fresh ideas for marketing and growing the business. With ideas continually shot down, he’s resorted to “waiting it out” until the business finally passes to him in order to run it the way he wants to.
These types of conflict are a direct result of not having a clearly articulated purpose for the business. In a purpose vacuum, those with the most authority often feel threatened by new ideas that diminish their impact and authority. But when those in power exercise that power in service of a shared purpose, every idea is evaluated on whether it furthers the purpose or not. This is the essence of making purpose the boss, to borrow a phrase from my friends at the executive coaching firm Conversant.
By making purpose the boss, you create an environment in which different ideas can flourish no matter who brings them to the table. You are appealing to how they could impact the purpose rather than to subjective opinions on the ideas themselves.