Keeping it all in the family: pros & cons of working in a family business
If you have not ever watched the Tyler Perry movie The Family That Preys, you should add it to your list. If you have, you would well remember the mother/son relationship of the Cartwrights that was fraught with anger, frustration. It is probably the dream of most entrepreneurs to build a business that becomes a legacy for their family so that it lasts for generations and provides not only employment but also an inheritance for their children, siblings and other relatives. Working in a family-owned and operated business however has a unique dynamic that can have its pros and cons for both family members and ‘outsiders’.
The benefits of working in a family-operated business are really the reasons a person starts a business in the first place.
Family-owned businesses usually function best on the values of trust and loyalty. Entrepreneurs are so close to their vision they would call it their ‘baby’. As a result, just like a doting parent, business leaders will be very particular about who they trust with their dream. This will translate into hiring family members and people who display great loyalty and commitment to the vision.
Family businesses tend to cultivate a family-like work culture where making connections may be a priority. They may be the organizations where celebrating birthdays, company and personal milestones, corporate social gatherings and the like become important aspects of company life.
Just like a family, loyal and committed team members don’t leave. They grow with the company and sometimes their children join the ranks and contribute to the legacy of the organization. Seeing that these entrepreneurs are building their own futures and that of their family, stability and longevity are integral to them ensuring business success. Failure is not an option for so many reasons.
While working in a family business sounds like utopia, sadly, almost all the benefits can be disadvantages as well.
Many people I talk to as a result of the consultancy and training work I do complain that it is challenging to advance in family businesses because all the key positions are held by family members, whether or not the persons are qualified. Not only are they in those positions, but they tend to not be open to suggestions and change from others which creates a totally different dynamic where people are less inclined to share ideas or concerns because who are you really talking to? This is not just your boss but this is the owner’s child, in- law, spouse or other relative. At the end of the day, blood is thicker than water as the saying goes. It won’t be the family member who is felt to not be a team player and working against the vision, it will be the outsider.
Another complaint from people in family run businesses is that there is interference from family members, both in the business and those not involved in the day to day running of the business, where their influence is not what is best for the business. Whether it is because of the blinders of being the ‘parent’ of ‘the baby’ and being too close to it to make the best decision, or the incompetence of the family members in top roles, team members are frustrated into being victim to moves that are not strategic or beneficial to the business when they can see or know better. Sometimes situations call for change that family members resist. As a result, not only does it affect the overall effectiveness of the business, but also the engagement of the team, which leads me to my final challenge of working in a family business: low morale.
Business leaders can quite often mistake tenure in a company for loyalty, commitment, engagement and overall happiness to be there. That is not the case. Not everyone who is on a job for a long time or doing their part is happy. People stick it out because they have personal responsibilities that are their higher priorities. So paying the mortgage, school and college fees, continuing education, caring for an aging parent or a sense of obligation to the company’s investment in them may all be the reasons why someone will stay at work. This is why leaders are surprised when satisfaction survey results aren’t as positive, or when someone who they felt was instrumental to the business ‘suddenly’ leaves. The leader is devastated and shocked but never knew how that employee really felt. People swallow a lot to keep a job, especially in an environment where they feel their opinion does not carry any weight.
Being an entrepreneur is a thrilling experience that requires great strength, wisdom and insight to be successful, with many factors to consider for all things to work well for the betterment of the business. Living out the entrepreneurial dream with family can be both a blessing and a curse if the business owner is unable to make strategic, objective decisions that take the overall wellbeing of the business into account that may have to transcend family ties.
• Simmone L. Bowe, MSc, SPHRi, is a seasoned human resource and organization development consultant & trainer, speaker, author, and mentor who focuses on helping business owners, leaders and professionals diagnose their people and performance problems and implement strategic solutions. For comments, queries or to book a consultation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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