Challenging times such as these may offer us an unexpected opportunity to pause and reflect on our experiences, and to consider what lessons we may be able to share with others. For much of my life, I have been a part of a family business. First as a child, observing my grandparents in a business that involved several different family members. And then spending nearly two decades co-owning and co-leading my own family business with my brother. As I have reflected on those parts of my life, these three observations have emerged:
• Business is challenging. Blend in family dynamics, challenges rise exponentially.
• Family businesses are a source of great joy, as well as immense suffering.
• When family relations breakdown, ultimately so does the business.
To blend and make both the family AND the business work successfully, what’s the leader to do? I offer 5 key lessons from my own journey, from which I earned a Ph.D. from the School of Hard Knocks:
1. Values + Purpose + Vision = Alignment
Each human being has a unique set of values, sense of what gives them meaning, and vision for their lives. These can generate very different business goals. For example, one member may wish to operate a small, locally operated business that serves its community, while the other dreams of creating a growing business with multiple locations.
Without having understanding of what’s important to each member and why, and what each aspires to create, family members can end up working at cross-purposes. Unaddressed, this lack of alignment leads to waste of significant time, energy, resources and can be a source of friction.
Thus, it’s critical to engage in conversations to understand what each family member values and why they value it, and what the shared values of the business will be. Take the time to explore what each wants to create and why, and then arrive at a shared purpose and shared vision. Let each family member see for themselves how to achieve what’s most important to them, while creating alignment about the future of the business.
2. Roles + Responsibilities = Accountability
In family business, clear roles and responsibilities are often missing. Given this, it becomes nearly impossible to hold each other accountable.
Family members often end up feeling that they are the ones who are working hard while the others are not doing their fair share. This can lead to negative feelings such as anger, resentment, cynicism, and ultimately disengagement and infighting.
It’s crucial to engage in conversations to establish clear roles and responsibilities, and to hold yourself and each other accountable. And when someone doesn’t keep their end of the bargain, it’s important that conversations take place to establish accountability. Of course, these are best had in the spirit of “Care-Frontation”, which means that, even when difficult, we have these conversations because we care.
3. Events Do Not Equal Explanations
Communication and collaboration are challenging. What makes it even more challenging is that many of us are unaware that we live in an interpretive world, where Events Do Not Equal Explanations. We often do not distinguish facts (events) from our interpretations of those facts (explanations). Our interpretations unconsciously trigger emotions, which then lead to actions and impacts.
If we do not learn to recognize and separate Events from Explanations, the resulting impact can end up driving wedges in the relationships, and ultimately damages both the family and the business.
4. Leaders Must Have Clarifying Conversations
As leaders we create everything via conversations. In other words, leaders are conversational engines. Thus, one of the main roles of leaders becomes to design, convene, lead and facilitate conversations that keep both the family and the business functioning well. It’s crucial to learn to engage in Clarifying Conversations to “clear the air”, to surface and remove misinterpretations, and to see situations more clearly. Done well, this pays big dividends.
I feel so strongly about the power of these leadership conversations, I wrote a book about it! If you’d like to delve into the power of conversation more deeply, I invite you to read Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence: How Extraordinary Leaders Build Relationships, Shape Culture and Drive Breakthrough Results.
5. Consider a Neutral External Facilitator
Given family business dynamics, it can be a game-changer to involve a facilitator who can help design and facilitate these types of conversations, help you to establish clear roles and responsibilities, and guide families through the development of shared values, purpose, and vision. Skilled external facilitators can often ask the hard questions, surface the undiscussable topics, and keep conversations productive and moving forward. This is a high-leverage investment.
It’s my great wish that the families that operate family businesses can use these lessons – or discover their own – so that their businesses thrive and their families find joy in the work of creating something together.
Which of these lessons have you experienced in your own business? What would you add to these five?