Running any business is tough enough, but involving family members can make it even more challenging. Unfortunately, if family members are drawn in, you greatly increase your risk of failure when you don’t handle it correctly. Here are a few tips to help you successfully navigate those challenges…

I know of many successful family-run businesses. But, such enterprises have their own set of problems, and success only follows solid management.

  • For starters, don’t let a family business happen by accident. As often as not, the business starts; then, you call in your spouse to do the accounting, and/or recruit the children to work on weekends or fill in at the counter or phones. Once you have envisioned your business, decide then and there whether this is going to be family based or not. Then, structure it accordingly.
  • <Imagine a table of organization with job descriptions. Start to formalize the descriptions with skills, knowledge, and experience. Then, decide which relatives could best serve in those roles. Frankly, you have no obligation to include all members of the family, and this would be a first step in strong management. If your brother-in-law or nephew fits your needs, great; if they do not, you might explain what it is you need and what they need to do to fit your needs. But, you have no obligation to please.
  • Form a mission statement. It is your job to keep “your eye on the prize.” Call the family together to share your vision. Invite them to help you with the mission statement, but let them know there job is to defer to your leadership. In doing this, draw a simple but firm chain of command and line of authority. You can do this with authority and still maintain the family magic.
  • Confirm how disputes will be handled. Friction occurs among people in any business. Somehow, families make it more intense and longer lasting. In a regular business, the manager can resolve conflicts with authority; in family businesses, dysfunction and grudges can ruin things. With a family business, family matters require different handling.
  • Take care of this as much as possible up front. Well before, you “open the doors,” let the family know this is a real concern of yours, and solicit input on structured solutions. Let this happen over several planned meetings, so they appreciate the weight of the problem. And, put as much of this as possible into writing. Let these meetings be the first of regular family meetings.
  • Include tough subjects in these early meetings. Present and discuss your succession plan and sharing “the wealth” of sweat equity. These plans can and should evolve with time and experience, but everyone should know where your head is at from the beginning. Of course, these plans are best formed and maintained if you have legitimately secured and integrated the family’s input.
  • Finally, formalize a system for conflict resolution. The family can survive arguments over Aunt Sally’s gruffness. But, workloads and salary discrepancies are another matter. Structure a “court” for discussion and resolve, and secure allegiance to the policy and procedure.

Communicating your mission, dreams, and plans early, often, and with reasonably democratic participation goes far towards building the substructure you need for continuity.


by Steven Schlagel