Where the holidays may be a hot spot for family issues, the family business environment creates opportunities for conundrums all throughout the year.
Before answering the question, let’s think preventively for a moment. Although marriage vows speak to commitment during “richer or poorer and sickness and in health”, these vows are not based upon going to work together every day. The working environment puts a strain on marriage like nothing else. The bonds of love, commitment, and understanding are challenged by business demands of leadership, productivity, and teamwork.
The spiritual expectation of marriage is that “two become one”. As the muddling Dr. Merlot would express, under the assumption that opposites attract, the unified marital personality is a good thing; less confrontation, conflict and argument and more compromise, harmony and well-earned intimacy. He would further express that although accommodation and compromise create a more harmonious “marriage personality”, apart from the marriage, individual personalities really do not substantively change. Achieving and maintaining marital unity is a formidable challenge, requiring significant physical commitment and emotional discipline from both parties. Predictable dissimilar levels of commitment are the classic source of marital complexity. Because of the selfless commitment required, many find accommodation demands of marriage too difficult; evidenced by our divorce rate.
Under the heading of “family” we have confirmed that marriage is a complex and demanding endeavor. Let’s also reaffirm that from a “business” perspective being partners is also a complex undertaking. Finding unity of vision and process between two partners in business demands a similar type of effort. However, it is in a highly dynamic environment, impacted by market changes, competition, and distributor, vendor, employee, and customer expectations. Just as in marriage, because of the work involved to create a successful business, many find partnerships too difficult which can be observed in the rates of sales and buyout under the heading, it’s not worth the brain damage.
“you cannot run a business like a family and you cannot run a family like a business.”
Acknowledging the complex challenges of both marriage and joint business operation, the typical married couple attempting to maintain harmony and create business productivity predictably creates excitement, distractions, and organizational dysfunction. As Dr. Merlot would say, it is easier for a marriage to own a dealership than to operate one. Notably the excitement of married operators is less evident in the early stages of a business when everyone is so busy doing what is required to keep the doors open, pay the bills and eke out a living. In the early stages, leadership issues are fairly simple. Both parties understand that if there are serious marital differences of opinion, the business could fail, everyone loses. However, after the business enterprise has been confirmed as a source of security and the pathway to a lifestyle of the rich and famous, the independent profession of two marital personalities within a business can create family business chaos.
My recommendation for married couples operating a business is, where possible, don’t. Try to avoid the opportunity to create mixed messages that will frustrate key managers, demoralize employees and discourage family member employees (FMEs) and successors. I suggest that apart from the marriage both parties deserve a place to feel at ease to liberate their true personalities. Unless they are willing to amp up the complexity of family business to levels that easily approach critical mass, I suggest that they take the easy road, one party of the marriage to retire or pursue an independent career.
If both the husband and wife are committed to the ideallic family business where all family members are working together I caution them to the likelihood that inherent leadership challenges may impose a heavy cost on the family and/or the business. Irrespective of titles or professions by married operators, managers, employees, FMEs and vendors will distort their natural interaction with an operating spouse because they assume an open channel of communication between married operators. Employees and vendors, just like children, will identify a marital side of greatest opportunity an attempt to manipulate circumstances through patronizing differences in personality and perspective. The probability of business issues to polluting marital harmony or mixed messages reducing business productivity is a toss-up. The probability of business succession is dramatically reduced with both curses.
If there is a continuing commitment to married operators I recommend a transition from the assumptions and informalities of a family business to the formal structures of a business family. This would include a formal expression of business officers such as CEO, President, Treasurer, etc. There must be constant affirmation of the respect for the CEO, the acknowledged leader and the ultimate decision maker. Formal “Operating Covenants” between the spouses that are similar to the promises of marital covenants can provide a framework for how a married couple respects one another in the workplace, avoids triangulations, empowers managers and works out differences in private. To put a ribbon on marital operation and leadership, I recommend engaging a therapist that will periodically serve as an outlet for candid dialogue and a referee to offer objective insight into the inevitable marital complications that will can corrupt organizational harmony and direction.
Unfortunately Rawls Group is commonly asked to solve discoloration after the paint is dry. The best way I have found for an owner to deal with an operating spouse who is causing problems, is to first look in the mirror and ask, “what have I done wrong; what inappropriate marital accommodation have I made that is causing business problems?” Invariably both spouses are part of any marital problem, either as the perpetrator or as the peace keeper who did not want to create more family or business issues through confrontation. Take it from a veteran of untold intra family excitement, you must understand your complicit roll in the development of this problem before you can initiate any program to change your spouse’s (partner’s) behavior. Otherwise your emotional bravado may be equivalent to volunteering to serve on the bomb squad without training.
Fundamentally you cannot change the dysfunctional behavior of an operating spouse unless you are willing to do what you have previously been avoiding. Your self-assessment may give you the clear pathway to resolving the issues being presented by your spouse. And unfortunately, if you are not willing to make these changes it is unrealistic to anticipate that a succession planner of family therapist can do it for you. So to quote the great philosopher Michael Jackson, to resolve your operating spouse issue, be prepared to “look in the mirror and make a change”.
If your spouse is operating totally illogical, you are in for a rough road and you are going to need help. No doubt your spouse will be skeptical of your “striated” spousal interpretation of his or her behavior. Objective perspectives from family, friends or counselors will be very helpful. Be prepared for an extended challenge that mandates change in behavior or change in environment.
If you determine that your spouse is acting logical as a spouse, parent, sibling, etc. but illogically as a business operator, affirm the specific behavior. Conversely, are they acting logical as a business owner affirm that behavior as well. Then point out that it is very easy for a family member or business leader to get his/her wires crossed and point out The Family Business Conundrum: you cannot run a business like a family and you cannot run a family like a business. Express to them that the only way to successfully operate a family business is continual rebalancing between family and business priorities. Then endeavor to discuss balancing and make this a frequent topic of your marital operation discussions.
Author: Loyd Rawls
Loyd H. Rawls, President/Chairman of The Rawls Group, has specialized in succession planning for closely-held, family owned businesses since 1973. Well respected in his field, Mr. Rawls is a highly requested speaker and has published numerous articles and publications on this subject such as “Seeking Succession: How to Continue the Family Business Legacy” and “The Succession Bridge: Key Manager Succession Alternatives for Family Owned Businesses.”