The dos and don'ts of joining a family business

Joining your in-law's family business is as daunting as it gets. When in doubt look to the cheat sheet.

Families in business have a unique way of blending life and work that can be challenging to any newly arriving in-law.

Unfortunately joining a family business doesn’t come with a manual and sometimes it can feel like trying to crack a locked safe.

When I got married and started working in my wife’s family business, I found the intersection between love and the duty of business difficult to understand, navigate and balance. Often a family dinner at the in-laws house would turn into a fully-fledged strategy session on how to approach a new business prospect or detailing instructions for a corporate lawyer on an industrial dispute. The conversation could just as quickly turn to a grandchild who was unwell and seeing a doctor the following day, followed by a discussion on whether the steak was overdone. In talking with other in-laws, I found that this is not uncommon.

Starting my work life in a non-business family environment -- where work ended at the office and family life started when I walked through my front door -- this new situation was both interesting and unsettling.

Here I offer some dos and don’ts for fresh married-in members of a family business, to provide a greater chance of success.

Do

Expect work to follow you home straight away

Right off the bat I was working seven days a week and often having meetings with the family at night.

This sort of baptism by fire is, as I see it, the first real test -- how committed to the success of the business is this newbie? Jump in the deep end and instantly let the wider family know that you’re there for the right reasons.

Be respectful and know your place

It’s not uncommon for an incomer to instantly see the potential for improvement. Go slow and respect the contribution others have made before you.

If you feel you possess superior qualifications and experience to family members and current management, take a long-term view. Your actions and achievements will have greater impact over time than if you try to elevate your status by publicly reinforcing your credentials.

Understand the need for family meetings

Families in business have to be agile and responsive and this often comes in the form of frequent family meetings on short notice. It’s easy to become frustrated with all these meetings but they’re important for reworking strategy and tactics, so try not to complain about them.

Remember -- this is probably a key factor to the success behind the business.

Be interested in the challenges facing the business

In my experience it’s the people who enjoy business challenges and tackle the difficult issues who are naturally looked upon as future leaders.

Think hard about the real problems facing the business and offer strong possible solutions. Trust and respect will follow.

This is how you make it to the top spot.

Don’t

Ignore the importance of being a spendthrift

A successful family business achieves its wealth through hard work, planning and frugality. The higher ups will want to see that you know and respect the value of a dollar.

Because the people you work with are part of your family network, everyone will know when you buy a new car, renovate the house or go on a big holiday.

Control your spending, manage your own money well and understand the transparency that comes with a family business.

Question the wills of your parents in law

This is a delicate situation to navigate. Talking about your in-law’s will can breed distrust and suspicion, but younger generations may want greater certainty that their contribution and sacrifice to the business will lead to a fair distribution of accumulated wealth in the future.

Parents don’t want their children to argue after they pass and the assumption should be that the estate will be fairly distributed.

Unless it’s a real and pressing concern, it’s best to leave this one alone.

Cause disharmony with other family members

Arguments in family business will always happen, there’s nothing you can do about that. But the importance of being diplomatic, fair and committed to maintaining long-term family harmony cannot be overstated.

In my experience using formal structures is the key. The family council meeting on a regular basis is the tool we use to keep tensions under control and communication open.

Question the past decisions of the person in charge

If you criticise a former leader you’re probably having a go at someone’s parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle -- so be careful.

The decisions of previous generations were made with serious consideration and so it would be highly disrespectful for a new in law to ridicule them from a position of hindsight and without understanding all variables considered at the time.

Living and working within a family business environment allows an individual a wonderful opportunity to achieve holistic life success.

For an in-law joining a family and a business, it can be a challenge initially. However, taking into consideration the above points will give you a great chance at finding your way through the largely unmapped territory of in-laws working in a family business.

Nick Vantas is Managing Director with Karras Cold Logistics, a second generation family-owned company, son-in-law of the company’s founder and Winner of FBA’s 2013 National Next Gen Achiever of the Year Award. More by Nick Vantas.

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