How to Make Working with Family Really Work

By Rebecca Bryant, President, Bryant Research, LLC, Knoxville, TN, rebecca@bryant-research.com

According to the US Census Bureau, the vast majority of businesses in America, a whopping nine in ten, are family owned or controlled. And, family businesses make up two-thirds of all businesses around the world according to a Family Firm Institute interview with John Davis of the Harvard Business School. Qualitative researchers are no exception in this regard. A number of our quallie colleagues’ businesses include family members.

So, how do our QRCA colleagues make working with family really work? To find out, I spoke with several who work in family businesses.

They Have Clearly Defined Roles Aligned with a Common Purpose

While a few of our QRCA colleagues describe morphing in and out of roles on an ad hoc basis, most indicate they and their family members play clearly defined roles in the business. Several describe dividing the work based on their respective strengths, tapping into their complementary skills sets to cover the bases. One might love to travel and the business development side, while the other gravitates more toward managing the recruiting logistics and office-based staff. Several describe their spouse as having stronger financial inclinations and/or business management skills, which frees them to moderate to their heart’s content.

Others explain that they have separate clients. This delineation typically results from their individual business backgrounds. So, divvying the work in this manner happens in a straightforward manner because of their industry expertise. And, for a number of these consultants, maintaining separate books of business serves to preserve their individual professional autonomy.

Bottom line, all of those interviewed characterize the work as geared to the individuals’ strengths. They are sharply focused on client objectives and ensuring that the business flourishes.

Compensate Commensurate with the Contribution, and Fire if Needed

Compensation should allow the family member to remain gainfully employed in the family business without feeling he or she needs to apply for other jobs to make a fair salary. That noted, if a family member is not contributing as needed, he or she needs to be let go.

Capitalizing on Trusted Collaboration

Those who have incorporated, and retained, family members in their business share a deep trust with their relatives. Each of those interviewed called out the benefits of collaboration with these trusted family members as invaluable. This may mean tapping into a spouse’s perspective for his or her industry insights, having an ever-ready sounding board for ideas, charging a child with amping up the business’s online presence or relying on a family member to make sure reports are well edited. These quallies know they can rely on their family members to always get the work done and to do it to the best of their ability. As one explained, “I know they always have my back.” This trust between family members provides the foundation upon which the business is built.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

The most important aspect of these successful family collaborations, and potentially the trickiest cited, is communication. Communication must be effective. One offspring who has joined her Mom put it this way, “We are always open and honest.” Spouses who work together described employing active listening and striving to resolve disagreements before day’s end. After all, when you work with family, they are not just colleagues, they are your loved ones.

Keep in mind, they advise, that bringing family members into a business does not magically fix communication issues—in fact, it can exacerbate them. One QRC relayed ways in which difficult aspects of her relationship with a family member played out in the business in a similarly challenging fashion. Paraphrasing what several spouses shared, “If you are not able to communicate well in the marriage, it will surface in the business, and both the business and your marital partnership will suffer.”

Additionally, it is important to settle differences between family members privately, meaning in ways that do not intentionally or inadvertently pull others into the conflict. While constructive discourse may be important in sorting through issues, avoid having this bleed over and involve others in the workplace.

Set Boundaries that Support the Working Relationships

For everyone, setting boundaries that support the working relationships involves clear and effective communications. Other important practices mentioned include specific ways to maintain professional autonomy as well as growth. For example, education, working experience outside the family business, and even separate hotel rooms when traveling help support the individual’s success.

Sometimes, family businesses need to create privacy for the individual. Would one automatically assume the client would not pay for two hotel rooms when a researcher was traveling with a non-related subordinate or colleague? If this privacy affords family members the space they need to be their best selves, get two hotel rooms.

For a number of those interviewed, maintaining a boundary around family that separates work hours from family time is important. These researchers accomplish this in various ways. Some have an office outside the home, while some have a childcare worker in the home. Family gatherings, particularly those with extended family, and vacations are somewhat sacrosanct times to which work is not invited, according to some. One couple from an entrepreneurial family always remembered one of their father’s credos: “You can only eat from one spoon.” There will be enough work. There will be enough. Make time for family. Make vacationreservations. Go as a family. At the same time, several characterized this boundary as perforated. They advised: relax if work conversation comes to the dinner table or a load of laundry goes in the dryer between conference calls. This is just life. Live it.

Jim Ethier, current chairman and former CEO of Bush Brothers and Company, a very successful third-generation enterprise, explained in an interview with Carrie Hall, EY Americas Family Business Leader, “Education plays a key role in making your family business the best it can be. While it’s important to learn about business leadership and best practices, leading a family business requires that you’re educated—and educate others—on the responsibilities involved in running that business, its values and aims.”

Several QRCs mention that they actively encourage their next-generation family members to attend moderator training, to obtain market research certifications and to get active in QRCA. In this, and other ways, the business supports individual family members in furthering the knowledge base they bring into the business. They stress best research practice as well as ethics, and they related this to the family firm, noting that education helps to build individual confidence, making the family members even more valuable.

Working in another business was cited as the way in which many of those interviewed, spouses and children, gain the skill sets needed to be successful in the family enterprise. In fact, one Mom mandates that her daughter have both RIVA training and work with another firm before joining her company.

While various tactics mentioned varied a bit, the underlying credo is to help each individual succeed by setting boundaries that uphold the business’s objectives as well as support individuals’ success.

Someone Has to Be the Boss

Ultimately, every business has an owner. Some spouses interviewed characterized their family endeavor as a true partnership. These spouses described having equal weight in the decision making. Others related that one spouse, typically the one who started the business, was the ultimate decision maker. And, this spouse may or may not be the one who is in charge at home. However, these family business leaders do not make unilateral decisions that exclude the other spouse; the other spouse’s opinions are actively sought and included.

In the US, a number also noted that they are certified woman-owned business, a status that signifies the woman’s leadership role.

How They Get There

Family businesses form for several reasons. Many describe their origins as organic—it just happened. The child was interested, or a spouse stepped up during a period of business growth and stayed gainfully engaged. Others were more intentional. Perhaps they came from a family of entrepreneurs where being in the family business was a way of life. This is how families work, in their experience. Or, maybe the couple met in a corporate setting and decided they could create a better and more profitable working environment by starting a family business. In some cases, layoffs from workplace restructuring threw one spouse out of work, and they decided to do it just in the interim, only to find they liked what they had created. Regardless of the reasons, success grew out of a clear business focus, effective communications, education that supported professional growth, as well as a great meshing of individual talents.

Being in a family enterprise may not be for everyone. And, it may or may not last generations. However, the most successful endeavors flourish when the family members value kind consideration, can leverage their individual smarts, and know they can trust the other family members both to work toward a great deliverable and to the good of the whole.

A Special Note of Thanks

I would like to extend a special thanks to all the QRCA members who so generously shared their insights as well as needed edits to this article: Andrea and Manny Schrager; Betsy Bernstein; Elizabeth McKinley; Isabelle Albanese; Jeff Hecker; Michelle Finzel; Pat Sabena; Stacey Yarnall. In addition to providing detail for this article, the following QRCA members have very generously offered to speak with those who seek additional insights about forming family enterprises: Chelle Precht, Helen Karchner, Ilka Kuhagen, and Patrice Wooldridge.

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