Wake-up Call: Working with family members can work

Wake-up Call: Working with family members can work

While it can be difficult, these tips should make your job in the family business easier


Carolyn O'Hara


People who successfully work with family often find the experience to be enriching

People who successfully work with family often find the experience to be enriching


Working in the family business can be fraught. If your manager is also your parent, sibling or other relative, how do you keep things professional?

People who successfully work with family often find the experience to be enriching. However, if something goes wrong, the damage can be devastating.

Fallouts with family over work can cause anger, sadness and shame, says Rob Lachenauer, chief executive and co-founder of Banyan Family Business Advisors.

“When a family member gets fired, they feel they’ve been fired from what they were born to be,” he says. Here’s how to work effectively alongside relatives:

Work somewhere else first: Experience in an outside firm should be a requirement before working in the family business, Lachenauer says. You will get invaluable training, improve your business judgment and build confidence. You will also gain perspective on what you want your career arc to look like.

Create separate spheres: As soon as you enter the family business, set a boundary between family time and work time. Create house rules about which family matters are permissible to talk about at the office and vice versa.

It can also be helpful to note which hat you are wearing before embarking on a conversation. If you think a family member isn’t respecting these boundaries, “bring it up privately and immediately”, Lachenauer says.

Define your role and career path: Make sure you have a clear understanding of your job description and that others know what role you fill. That way you will avoid stepping on colleagues’ toes or giving anyone the impression that you are resting on your laurels.

Be transparent and proactive about your expectations and goals for the future, especially if you would like to hold the top job one day. It is critical to talk early and openly about rules for advancement and what handing over power might look like.

Adopt an office voice: Pay attention to the details of your interactions with family. Actively listen and use a professional tone with one another; that way you don’t make others feel excluded by your closeness or cause squabbles when boundaries are breached. Lachenauer recommends you not call each other by nicknames at work.

Seek independent feedback: Getting candid input when you’re the boss’s son or daughter is difficult. “Assume you won’t get good feedback,” Lachenauer says. He suggests participating in the standard review process but always supplementing it with outside evaluations to ensure you learn and grow. One strategy is to tap an independent board member to evaluate your progress and performance so you can get smart career advice and reviews.

Have a back-up plan: For your sanity and future success, it is critical to maintain outside interests and contacts of your own. As much as it might pain you to consider, think regularly about a Plan B in the event the family business – or your place in it – hits tough times.

Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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