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Thinking Ahead–Letter from Chaille: All in the Family – Hard Lessons from Family Business Reality TV
Publisher Chaille Brindley shares from experts and his own personal experience the top ten things to remember to keep the peace and more importantly keep a family business thriving
By Chaille M. Brindley
Date Posted: 7/1/2012
On many occasions I have threatened to write a TV show about my family business. The end product would likely be a mix between “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Office,” “Pawn Stars,” and “Hoarders. “ The first show for the family dynamic. The second and third shows for the outrageous characters we meet in the pallet industry. And hoarders because we tend to accumulate lots of paper and don’t always get rid of it as fast as some would like. Ok, the last one is me. I am the paper hoarding king. But my problem wouldn’t be so bad if some family members didn’t swamp me with needless bits of paper.
Oops, I have already violated the first rule of navigating a family business – don’t air your dirty laundry in public. Oh well.
As a reader of Pallet Enterprise, you are familiar with my family business because the Brindley family and a handful of people who we consider to be family publish the Pallet Enterprise, TimberLine, Pallet Profile and the Recycle Record. It is truly a great thing to work with such close family and friends. But even though we all get along fairly well, working in any family business has its moments.
For starters, my dad is a legend. Lots of people know him. That is both a great blessing and a bit difficult. Many of my conversations start with somebody asking, “How is your dad doing?” I could lie and say he’s as spry and sharp as ever. Or I could be honest and say that he spent the last twenty minutes looking for his cane in the office. But that doesn’t mean pops is losing it. He can still calculate figures in his head that make my brain hurt even if I use a calculator. Oh, and he still is our best writer when it comes to crafting a superb plant feature or folksy letter. And he will forget more about pallets this week than I have ever known.
Following the footsteps of a legend requires you to be comfortable in your own skin and to know that you have to learn how to do things your way while honoring the legacy that you have inherited. Family businesses can be tough because “this” is frequently about “that.” What I mean is that the subject at hand may not be the reason that an argument ensued. It may have something to do with a reaction to a family encounter that occurred a week earlier.
It is important to respect the other members of the family even if you think they are wrong, lazy, senile, gone too much, overbearing, greedy, etc. I happen to be lucky. Working hard is a Brindley family trait. So I don’t have to worry about any free loaders in my family. Everybody knows their roles and does them well.
The term “family business” can cover a wide range of business types. This can vary from the Dallas Cowboys and Wal-Mart to a local restaurant hot spot to a pallet company. The pallet and lumber industries are full of family businesses. And the connection between family and business can be either a big benefit or the beginning of the end. You can’t just assume that because it involves family members it will work out. Actually, the numbers suggest the opposite. According to the Family Business Institute, only about 30% of all family businesses survive beyond the founding generation, and the success rate drops to 12% after the transfer to the third generation.
Owners and managers in a family business can take steps to avoid becoming another sad statistic. These following ideas are a combination of my own experience and the suggestions from business experts. Here’s to a happy family and a successful business.
1.) Never assume; communicate everything. Family members may believe that others in the business know what they are thinking because they are family. But this leaves a lot up to assumptions. It is important that expectations are clearly stated and communicated. Communications should be written down and openly shared among family members.
2.) Respect is not optional. This goes for the company founder respecting the wishes of the next generation as it takes over the operations. Also, the younger generation needs to respect the parents or other older family members who built the company and still have a lot to contribute. Siblings and cousins need to respect the various gifts and personality types of other family members in the business. I have learned that it is important to recognize and appreciate the diversity in your family and see that as a strength, not a problem. Ultimately, family members should respect the feelings of those individuals who do not want to be involved in the business. No guilt trips or forcing others to live out your dreams.
3.) Develop a formalized business relationship and succession plan for family members and other key non-family managers. Drawing up a written agreement for your business is not a sign of a lack of trust. Instead it will help guide expectations, goals and the proper division of labor. It should be designed to protect all involved parties. As far as succession planning, transfer of the business needs to be clear and well thought out to avoid tax complications and family feuds.
4.) Listen first; speak second. One of the best ways to improve communication is to ask questions and truly listen, not just look for the break when you can say what’s on your mind. By fostering an environment where everyone gets a chance to be heard, you are going to reduce the likelihood of family members and other employees feeling like they are ignored. This helps everyone know that they are valued and are part of the team. But communication needs to be professional and considerate. Just because you are family doesn’t mean you have the right to yell or treat others with disrespect. Create “rules of behavior” that guide family interactions at work. Do not ridicule or be sarcastic to other family members - know and understand that being in a family business does not result in solidarity of opinion. It’s smart to distinguish between family discussions and business discussions and keep those conversations separate.
5.) Set goals and priorities and hold everyone accountable. It can be easy for a sense of entitlement or a lack of responsibility to grow in a family business. Establishing clear business goals and measuring performance will ensure that everyone strives for excellence. If you allow family members to get away with things, this will eventually affect the health of your business as well as reinforce negative attitude among family members.
6.) Treat everyone fairly not necessarily equally. How a company works with its non-family employees and managers will influence the company culture. Family members will likely have more opportunities than those outside of the family. But this shouldn’t be flaunted nor should it deprive worthy employees of compensation, benefits or promotions.
7.) Prioritize family over business. It is heartbreaking to hear about families that have been torn apart by a business or financial disputes. While you can build another business or make more money, you only have one family for life. This doesn’t mean that family members can act irresponsibly and get away with it. Family as highest priority merely means that family relationships are more important than the office or the business. By doing this, you will foster among your children a proper appreciation for the company not a desire to flee from it or resent it later in life.
8.) Play together if you want to preserve the family bond and the health of the company. You need to have appropriate boundaries when it comes to the office and the family. If you are in the middle of “family time” don’t talk about or put focus on the business.
9.) Keep the peace while preserving the proper edge caused by reasoned disagreements. Disagreements at work can cause tension. Some managers want to limit this potential for a family explosion. But it also rips out the passion and the urgency that can lead to a better company. You need to find a way to work through a disagreement to improve everyone involved. Merely keeping a lid on any and all disagreements will rob both your family and business of the impetus it needs to evolve and grow.
10.) Ask for outside help when needed. Don’t be afraid to solicit an outside mediator or consultant to help your family business navigate tough issues. When issues arise between family members, address them quickly. If a dispute is not resolved early, it can turn into a much bigger problem. Be on the lookout for hostility or jealousy between family members.
Family Business Resources
• Small Business Administration www.sba.gov
• Family Business Institute http://www.familybusinessinstitute.com/
• Family Business Consulting Group http://efamilybusiness.com/
• Family Business Magazine http://www.familybusinessmagazine.com/