“What’s wrong — is the company going bankrupt? Are we being sold?”
For Charlie, who had joined his family’s bakery business two years after getting his MBA and earning his stripes at another company, this question from the plant manager came out of the blue.
He was eager to earn his colleagues’ respect, rather than relying on his family name to provide it. So he went to great lengths to be just “one of the gang” in every possible way. This included parking in the back of the building and walking through the production plant, rather than zipping into the reserved space he’d been provided near the executive offices in the front. Most days he would stop and chat on his walk through the factory, getting to know his colleagues and learning more about the operations. But one day, after his morning walkthrough, the plant manager surprised him with the question about the company’s future. Charlie reassured him that the company was actually having a banner year. Where had that worry come from?
It turns out, seven people had gone to the plant manager after seeing Charlie arrive that morning with a sour look on his face. They all wanted to know: Was something bad about to happen? The scowl had nothing to do with work, but until then it had not dawned on Charlie how closely people were watching him. Though his previous job and his MBA had been invaluable, neither had fully prepared him for the reality of managing under a microscope.
When your family’s name is on the door, you will never just be one of the gang — and everything you do could be fodder for the office rumor mill.
From that day on Charlie, who eventually rose to become the fourth-generation CEO of his family’s company, made a promise to himself that each morning when he walked from his car to his office, it would be with his head held high and a smile on his face, no matter what was on his mind.
The family business leaders we work with have echoed Charlie’s experience. They have learned that their actions — positive and negative — are amplified because of their status as owners (or owners-to-be) of the company. Even seemingly small gestures — driving a fancy car to the office, putting photos of themselves with celebrities on Facebook, or calling themselves an “owner” in front of colleagues — can unintentionally generate ill will.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. Here are some of the most common traps we’ve seen family business members fall into, and how to avoid them.
Working at the company for the wrong reasons. If family members act as if they are there only to collect a paycheck, or because they have nowhere else to go, it sends a signal that all employees should push to get as much for themselves as they can. It’s better to convey that you are interested in the business. If you are passionate about the business and demonstrate your commitment through positive energy and hard work, it can energize other employees and encourage them to focus more on the common cause and less on who gets what.
Expecting promotions without putting in the work. When family members start at a level that is beyond their qualifications, or are promoted much faster than deserved, other employees are more likely to focus on patronage rather than performance as they look to climb the ladder. If you’re joining the family business, start at the bottom of the pyramid and work your way to the top. This will reinforce that the company is truly a meritocracy.
Working around the chain of command to get special treatment. How do you seek approval for their ideas? Do you follow the rules and work as hard as everyone else? Too often, family members take advantage of their access to senior members of the firm, seeing the rules as malleable and looking for ways around them. Instead, work through the chain of command, don’t ask for special treatment by relatives in senior positions, and abide by policies for vacation days, expenses, and office hours. This will foster a culture of accountability and reinforce the integrity of the company’s decision-making processes.
Blurring the boundaries between home and work environments. Office politics in family businesses are further complicated when members bring their family dynamics into the business, opening up the possibility of employees playing family members against each other. It’s important to set clear boundaries within the workplace, such as referring to people by name rather than relationship (“Mary” rather than “Mom”) and not discussing family dramatics at the office. This helps set a professional tone.
Working in your family’s business can bring enormous reward, but it also carries a lot of responsibility. As Charlie learned, if you work harder than other employees, are willing to learn from the shop floor up, and treat your privilege with modesty, you’re more likely to earn the respect of your colleagues and keep office politics in check.
Some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.
Josh Baron is a partner and co-founder of BanyanGlobal Family Business Advisors, and an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School.
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