The five rules to working with family

Family businesses are prone to a long list of potential stumbling blocks. Taking care with a few key areas can help keep the business productive and the family happy.

Working with family members can be highly rewarding and completely frustrating at the same time (I’ve been there). I’ve witnessed and experienced the joys and heated disputes that frequently occur. In particular, I’ve seen the relationships of three generations tested over a series of different types of business: from the family motels run by my parents and my uncle, to the hair and beauty salons of my mother, grandmother and cousins. I’ve also held the roles of receptionist, housemaid, barista, waitress and kitchen-hand in a restaurant; all working for family.

My grandparents and my parents all worked together day in and day out, yet they remained married (and talking to each other) with the businesses growing year on year. My experiences with them have left me with a range of firm beliefs on what it takes for both business and family relationships to be successful.

There are many tips to share; however here are the five key ones I believe will help you have a healthy and productive business relationship with your family:

Define roles and responsibilities to get the best results

Start with an exercise where you all identify your own strengths, weaknesses and job preferences. Use these to help divide up the core business roles and responsibilities and allow everyone to play to their strengths and avoid their Achilles heel where possible. Taking on a key role where you have an obvious weakness can lead to ongoing negative criticism, which is not healthy for you or your family relationship. That said, be aware of your weaknesses and how you can work on improving them via a learning plan, as this can also help keep day to day business friction-free.  

Establish clear goals for the business, as well as your role and set Key Performance Indicators to evaluate both

Treat the business like one that doesn’t have family members. Consider what motivated you (and demotivated you) in your previous roles, either inside or outside the business. Having clear goals and defined deliverables enables people to get on with their job.  It also defines what someone needs to deliver to trigger bonuses or reviews. This will help keep the discussions fact-based versus subjective. 

Make plans for dealing with potential conflicts before they arise

The best way to manage the emotion from differences of opinion is with cool, clear logic. Pick a time when you’re all feeling comfortable and in a good frame of mind. Develop a combined list of key issues relating to your business and then independently capture how you would like to deal with each issue. Once the list is complete, get back together and talk about it. You’d be surprised at how many are similar and then how quickly you can agree on how to deal with the others. Put agreements in writing – it’s harder to argue when it’s on paper. Relying on memories of discussions long ago is fraught with error on both sides.

Now you have defined the situations, the outcomes and how to get from one to the other, they become your guidebook should a situation arise. The bonus is, if you are flying solo on a particular project or initiative and you need to work through a tough situation, you already have your family members’ input on the outcome. Having said that, remember to keep each other informed at all times and update your family members after a business crisis or situation. 

Establish clear boundaries for discussion

Try to keep home and family out of work, and work out of family. Define the times and places where you’re all comfortable having difficult work discussions. These include discussions relating to business performance, employee performance and remuneration. Having this clearly identified helps you all work towards it and keep everyone satisfied that their achievements are being recognised and valued. Most importantly for the health of your business, keep the location for discussions and conflict away from any customers or employees. It’s not good for you or the culture of your business if it is a tension-filled workplace. 

Be conscious of the other person’s self-esteem at all times

When an emotional situation arises, (and they will) – walk away, clear your head and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Think about how you would like to receive the feedback. Never play each other off and never score cheap points. While it may give temporary satisfaction, it can lead to much bigger issues down the track.

Good luck navigating the emotional minefield of a family business.

Caroline Ruddick is MYOB's general manager of marketing.

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