Thriving in a family business...as an outsider
Lose the trust of family members and your career will tank
Non-family executives who survive and thrive are those who either know intuitively or learn through experience how to separate the business into “rooms”
Families can be intensely political organisations, and non-family executives must know how to play politics both in the business itself and in the dangerous borderland between the business and the family.
1 Play in your “room” only
Non-family executives who survive and thrive are those who either know intuitively or learn through experience how to separate the business into “rooms”: the management room, the owners’ room, the family room and the room for the board of directors.
Successful non-family leaders stick to the management room. They understand that when it comes to the family room, the family has all the power; it’s never going to be a fair fight.
2 Be highly discreet and competent
Given your position in the company, you typically have access to an enormous amount of privileged information, and information is power.
But woe to the manager who cannot keep confidences! Lose the trust of family members and your career will tank no matter how good you may otherwise be at playing the game of office politics.
3 Avoid proxy wars
While proxy wars are hardly limited to family businesses, they can often be more intense in families due to volatile group dynamics.
4 Give credit and invoke the family’s higher angels
Make a son look important in front of his father – a battle that child may have been waging all his life – and you will win the loyalty of that adult family member for life.
5 Make use of impartial outsiders
Giving feedback to executives about their performance can be tricky in a family business, where the sibling or cousin that you are evaluating may some day be the boss.
6 Know your genetic limits.
Even the most masterful player of office politics is not going to get the top job if there is a family member in the leadership pipeline who is destined to assume the mantle of CEO. Don’t take it personally; it’s not about you. Always be thinking about the family tree and family dynamics when considering your own path up the career ladder.
– Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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