In 1977, my father ventured out on his own as an entrepreneur to start our family printing business, Port of Printing. As the oldest son of a business-owning father, I experienced organizational dynamics I would only learn to put terms to many years later as a graduate student in an MBA program.
My being the oldest son in a family business set the course of my career. The small to medium-size family owned business (SMB) is where I have spent most of my life in both middle and now senior management roles.
For those new to the SMB world, Gartner Group defines SMBs as follows: Small businesses are usually defined as organizations with fewer than 100 employees; midsize enterprises are those organizations with 100 to 999 employees. The second most popular attribute used to define the SMB market is annual revenue: small business is usually defined as organizations with less than $50 million in annual revenue; midsize enterprise is defined as organizations that make more than $50 million, but less than $1 billion in annual revenue.
Recently, I have had the privilege of working with a great family in creating and executing a continuity plan as the family has become older and decided to have its first non-family key executives.
Here are five challenges of working in family a business:
1. Family politics: Many family businesses operate like a gang or The Mafia. As family members, we need to focus on building a strong family as the core of the business. As non-family members, you will never be part of the family (even when owners like to say you are), so never take sides when family members discuss family issues.
2. Change: Growth of business means learning how to deal with honoring the past while creatively destroying it in order to keep competitors from destroying you first.
3. Communication is at the heart of leadership: The flow of information between management, owners, and board is critical to decision-making, change, and growth. This is the essence of governance and leadership. When there is "back channel" communication (i.e., triangulation), gossip about family members, and negative judgments without direct conversation, family tensions will be high and dissension present.
4. Culture: As a big fan of Dr. John Ward's work on family business, I find his definition of family business culture both accurate and academically precise: "Culture is the result of what a particular group of people think and share together as being most important to them (values) and as a result, their shared basic beliefs influence the ways they interact with each other and with the world around them."
5. Anxiety: Learning to handle uncertainty with maturity can either make or break morale, engagement, and productivity in a business. Consultants are great tools for processing anxiety to prevent blame, scapegoating, triangulation, and Groupthink from taking over.
These top five issues in family businesses also apply to larger corporations. Innovation and entrepreneurial success flow from how well we navigate these management waters. I am looking forward to taking a deeper dive into these and other topics in coming months. See you there.