Family Business
Advisor & Coach

Family Business and Those 4 Letter Words

Over the years, I have been present at family meetings where various four letter words punctuate the dialogue. Those are a profane list that denigrate sexual and other bodily functions   and are used by some to vent frustration, or in some cases, are just part of some families’ lexicon. Those words carry the advantage of being interpreted the same way by different generations.   I offer no antidotes to the use of those words. No doubt they serve a purpose for those who use them liberally and for those who resort to them when exceedingly irritated. Instead, I offer my own version of useful four letters words and their meanings for families in business.

Work Hard

Work– now there’s a word that seems self-evident. Except when it isn’t.  It is subject to different interpretations by senior and successor generations.  The older family members, particularly founders or 2nd generation family members, equate work with showing up early at the office and being the last to leave every day, including Saturday. They take it to mean almost constant on- site presence, total focus and a sacrifice of personal desires. They believe that the best, if not the only personal aspiration should be to make the business more successful and all rewards flow from the attainment of that goal.

The next generation counters with their need for work-life balance and their ability to work remotely thanks to technology.  While I do advocate for measuring output more than input, my best advice to the successor generation is work hard and at times long hours. Dedicated focus brings innumerable returns, not least of which is the earned respect of family and non-family employees. And the ultimate recompense is assuming the mantle of leadership in the family business.  Despite the hard work and long work day, however, the prize is attained only when the senior generation implements some four-letter words of their own.

Step Down

Retirement at any age seems like a death sentence to many senior generation family members. Yet, unless they create some space for the next generation, they run the risk of creating and/or managing one- generation enterprises. I recoil when I hear a 75-year-old Chairman and CEO tell me that her children who work in the business and are all over 45 are not “mature:” enough to run the show. Some senior generation members create a dynamic where the next generation moves up the ladder of leadership, only to have to find ways to pass around their father or aunt.

While I certainly do not wish to discard, or disregard the experience and wisdom of the senior generation, stepping aside is not stepping down.  I promote the creation of new roles for senior generation members and actively work towards that goal.  Yet there must be a visible changing of the guard –give up that corner office, print new business cards and most of all, please get a life.  I appreciate that the single mindedness needed to build a business may mitigate against the development of hobbies. Perhaps what is required of senior family members over 50 is that they develop some interests outside of the core operational businesses. And that may well be other non-related businesses in which they could remain operationally in charge. or a non -profit organization where they bring their business skills to bear.

Think of Bill Gates and the kind of work he and his wife are doing globally via their foundation. Succession requires extensive planning and needs to be directly addressed. The timing and execution of succession is one family business topic that will benefit from frank discussions.

Talk More

If a family business is to be successful and sustainable from generation to generation, good communication and trust are pre-requisites. Communication is a skill and can be taught and learnt. Trust, however, can only be engendered, not taught. Trust stems from acting and being trustworthy. It is also nurtured by more frequent interactions.   A research project measured the level of trust among family members before family meetings and after the meetings. There was a significant increase. I urge that families in business schedule and conduct regular business meetings.

Talk more about the issues. Be open about the challenges facing the business and family. Have those difficult conversations. Work on learning about one another’s communication styles and practise speaking in ways that gets the most information out on the table. Enrol in communication courses to learn more effective ways of connecting with others. Make communication a priority in and out of the  business.   Create opportunities to share camaraderie in other settings.

Play Well

In my experience, communication and trust are enhanced when family members get together in a variety of surroundings and situations. I believe strongly that the family that plays together, stays together. Organize regular sacrosanct dates for joint family meals.  Have big celebrations for special family events. Plan the occasional vacations that include active and passive shareholders and potential shareholders.

These non-business activities provide opportunities for creating and cultivating both communication and trust. Family members learn more about each other’s lives in these gatherings and develop more tolerance and understanding for one another. This becomes critical when family members start families of their own and/or move away from home.

Whatever release people find in spewing those other four letter words, if they expand their vocabularies and actions to include those listed here, it would likely reduce their frustrations and the need to discharge any negative emotions.