Those of you who know me or who have read my previous columns know that I spent my entire career working in my family’s bidness (that’s how we say “business” down where I’m from in Texas). That doesn’t make me special among GAWDA members. Lots of our members are family businesses. And those who work in family businesses know that it can be the most rewarding experience in the world, or it can be a disaster that has the potential to not only destroy the business but possibly ruin family relationships.
I have been asked by many companies to come in and speak to the “next generation” of the business. And every time I agree to do so, I tell the company, “I’ll speak to the younger generation, but then I want to speak with you. And then I want all of us to speak together.”
In this column, I would like to speak specifically to the younger generation who are either considering joining the business, or who may already be in the business but are looking to transition into more leadership or management roles. In my next column, I’ll speak directly to the older generation who are looking to transition out of the business.
Many older GAWDA members may recognize some of this advice from Dr. Leon Danco, who spoke at quite a few NWSA meetings. Dr. Danco was an expert at family business transitions and his advice was timeless, as relevant today as it was in 1975.
Life Under a Microscope
If you’re considering entering into the family business, chances are you have been around the business your whole life. And, fair or not, people have very long memories. The things you did when you were a 16-year-old kid working in the warehouse on summer vacation are going to be remembered when you’re 26, 36, even 46. One of the best things about working in our industry is that there is very little turnover. We have a lot of “lifers” who spend their entire career with one company. But for somebody who is considering entering into the family business, that can be a double-edged sword. And it’s doubly difficult in today’s world, where, just in case somebody forgot what you did when you were in 16, everything is digitally archived on social media forever and ever to remind them.
Entering the family business can truly be a pair of golden handcuffs. You could be a Harvard valedictorian with a Nobel Peace Prize and a cure for cancer but a lot of employees are still going to think of you as just the bosses kid who is only there because they had the right last name. Fortunately, nobody ever mistook me for a Harvard valedictorian, I was actually the one who made the Bell Curve curve, but that’s beside the point.
So you really need to ask yourself, “Why are you doing this?” Has this been your dream since you were a kid? Or, is this just the path of least resistance? Is this an industry that you are actually interested in, or is it just an easy paycheck from mommy and daddy? If the only reason you’re going to work in the family business is because you can make more money working for mom and dad, then you need to find something else to do because I promise you that is not a good reason to join the business and you won’t last long. And if you don’t last long, in all likelihood, the business won’t last long.
There is a stigma around kids of owners that they are lazy or entitled. I’m sure in some cases that is true. But most of the time, it couldn’t be further from the truth. But it’s important to know that stigma exists. In many ways, children of owners need to work twice as hard to get the respect of their fellow employees. Be the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. If you earn their respect when you’re young, they’ll have that much more for you when you enter management and become their boss.
From the day you come into the business, you have just entered into the longest, most grueling interview you will ever have in your life for being president of that company. You are under the microscope from day one. Every single thing you do is in anticipation of you becoming the owner or president of the company at some point in time.
There are many schools of thought that say instead of coming into the family business right out of school, you need to go do something else first. You need to go work in another business, work in another industry, so that when you come back you’ve got some credibility that you didn’t go into the family business because it was the easiest thing to do. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I didn’t do that, for instance. But the point is the same, it’s all about establishing credibility for down the line.
Finally, I want to leave you with two pieces of advice for when it’s time to enter management or transition the business to your ownership. The first is, if you have siblings in the business, you must present a united front in public. If you’re a sales manager and your sister is an operations manager, you can yell, scream, argue and cuss all you want behind closed doors. But when those doors open, you must be on the same team. Because employees often are trying to figure out which of you to hitch their wagon to and they will try to drive a wedge that relationship.
Second, be empathetic to what your parents are going through. They have nurtured this business as if it was one of their kids and transitioning out of the business is a very difficult process for them. So be patient and be empathetic.
Being in the family business can be the most rewarding thing that you’ve ever experienced in your life. And I really hope that it will be that way for you.