One of the benefits of running a small business is that you get to be close with the people you work with. And all too often, either through choice or inheritance or circumstance, those people will be members of your family.
While there can be unique challenges to either partnering up with a relative or hiring one, there are also some benefits that come with bringing family into your team. For one, few people have as much interest in your business succeeding, maintaining a solid reputation, and producing excellent products for the community than someone with such a vested interest.
Here are three of the most common scenarios in family-run businesses, and tips on how to ensure that each one keeps the business, and the relationship, as smooth as possible.
When two spouses are running a business together, the criteria that make them successful are similar to what makes a successful marriage. In both, the single most essential element is communication. Each person is a critical member of a team, both in the relationship and in the business. If the channels of communication aren’t completely open at all times, problems nearly always ensue.
Granted, it’s easier said than done when it comes to opening communication. Doing so requires trust, compassion, honesty, a willingness to listen to others’ points of view, an ability to admit when you’re wrong or made a mistake, and a viewpoint that your opinion may not always be the right one, and that’s ok. The bottom line is that you can’t be in it to “win” arguments, ever. The business must come first, above your own ego or other needs, and if something isn’t in the best interests of the business, then you don’t do it.
With this big picture in mind, it’s always worth it to have as open and honest a conversation with your spouse/partner as you can, at least once every few months. No topic should be off limits, including who is carrying what responsibilities, is the work distributed evenly, is money being spent appropriately, where do you both want the business going in six months, and more. It’s best if you begin these conversations early on, but no matter where you are in your business life cycle, it’s never too late to start.
With siblings, it’s essential that the power dynamics be discussed and agreed upon by all parties from the get-go. In some ways, sibling partnerships can be trickier than married couples, since siblings have a lifetime of dynamics with each other that tend to bleed into their adult interactions.
If you’re partnering with your sibling, you will need to put on the mantel of emotional intelligence and resist falling into old patterns. The key is to treat the relationship like any other business partnership between adults. Granted, more is at stake, since if things go wrong, instead of merely falling out with a business partner you could be falling out with a sister or brother. As such, make sure you’re both on the same page from Day 1 as far as why you’re partnering, what you both want to accomplish, what the business should look like, how it should work into both your lives, and more.
If you’re both willing, try asking the question: Why partner with you, and not someone else? If you can’t answer this question with something powerful, consider why not.
If you’re the business owner and you are planning to hire a sibling, paying attention to the original dynamic in the relationship is critical. If it’s your older brother, will he respect your authority as a boss? If your sister is used to you taking care of her, will she be able to be a self-sufficient employee?
With this relationship, the power dynamic is usually clear — the parent has been running the business, and is now bringing in the son or daughter to be groomed for eventual succession. Still, the relationship can nonetheless be tricky. Some children are reluctant to take over the family business, and feel pressed into a career they didn’t choose. Some parents are reluctant to hand over power, or want to micro-manage their children.
At the end of the day, what is best for the business should always be the prevailing view. It makes sense to discuss, before entering the business relationship the full vision for the future of the business. But parents must also be willing to listen and be open to new ideas — when they turn over the reigns because things will inevitably change. Open-mindedness and a willingness to step outside of the typical “parent-child” relationship are crucial. Otherwise you’ll soon be butting heads, fighting over next steps, and possibly damaging both the business and the personal bond.
Working with family members can be immensely rewarding, and uniquely challenging. At the end of the day, it takes a strong bond, a powerful willingness to listen and respect others’ views, and a lack of ego to make it work. Granted, these traits will benefit you in every area of life, so why not adopt them in your business?