As a business succession planner I believe family harmony is a component of the Succession Matrix. On a day-to-day basis I deal with the good, the bad and the ugly of family business. The good gives me encouragement that family business succession is worth the brain damage and affirmation that there is no such thing as a perfect family. The bad provides me a sense of job security and confirmation that all family issues can be resolved if the parties will just remain engaged. And the ugly makes me question my career choice and acknowledge that the problems on the “have” side can be worse than those on the “have-not” side.
Based upon my 40 years or so experience within this matrix, I have concluded that facts are stranger than fiction when it comes to interfamily dynamics and no matter how bad circumstances are within a family it can always get worse. Furthermore, I have had an opportunity over my career to identify best practices of families who relatively speaking have achieved family harmony.
Before sharing those common practices, frame your thinking within the reality that harmony is a subjective adjective describing the predominate perception of interaction between family members. Under simple circumstances achieving harmony in a family is a challenge. Just look around you. How many families do you know where kids cannot talk to parents, in-laws are always offended or brothers cannot have a beer together for fear of a fist fight? Then put a family in a business with career path competition, awarding of titles and the division of money and you have got a potential harmony challenge of the highest magnitude.
In light of the challenge for family business harmony, there are several important considerations. First an environment that may seem harmonious to one family may be perceived as bizarre, frustrating or even dysfunctional by others. The true determinate of harmony is the opinion of those in the family.
Second, all families have relationship issues from time to time, with some more than others. Therefore, being classified as a “harmonious family” does not mean that a family has a perfect warm and fuzzy, totally encouraging, always supportive and happy culture. If this were the situation, families would not be fulfilling one of their primary missions: to offer honest, forthright and considerate feedback regarding family member behavior and performance. Honest, forthright feedback sometimes leads to active debate and frustration, which from an outside snapshot perspective, could appear to be dysfunctional.
Therefore, the harmonious family in business is one that from time to time looks bad, but predominately looks good as they maintain equilibrium between the good and the bad, and effectively avoid the ugly. From a business succession planning perspective harmonious families maintain sufficient teeter-totter like giggle to maintain a reasonable family business equilibrium between unconditional family acceptance and conditional business performance accountability. This giggle up and down acknowledges day-to-day interactive issues among family members, but does not accept long-term problems.
With this as a framework, my best practices of harmonious families in business would include:
- Give one another the benefit of the doubt.
- Have genuine interest and concern about the welfare and success of other family members.
- Do not dwell on the negative of the past.
- Respect all members active and inactive by meeting periodically to discuss business circumstances, actions and plans.
- Have written family member performance expectations to relieve any ambiguity regarding general performance expectations of family member employees.
- Do not have family members reporting to other family members.
- Provide family member employees regular performance reviews during the first three to five years of full time employment.
- Agree that it is OK to disagree.
- Continue to discuss disagreements to preclude issues from becoming problems.
- Have family member employees work outside of the family’s business prior to working in the family business.
- Provide a career development plan for family member employees with a time line regarding their development as an employee, manager and leader.
- Business leaders ascribe to the concept that there is no business gain worth a family price.
- Make sibling rivalry a joke amongst competitive siblings.
- Make sure, that most of the time, everyone feels understood and appreciated.
- Do not take harmony for granted and strive to improve interaction.
- Occasionally ask other family members and managers, “How am I doing?”
- Occasionally ask other family members and managers, “How are you doing?”
- Freely give acknowledgements and complements for effort and accomplishments.
- Accept and appreciate acknowledgements and complements for effort and accomplishments.
- Address interpersonal issues, never deny them.
So, how many of these twenty best practices does your family utilize or demonstrate? Are you doing three or four as you trade insults and sarcasm? Are you doing five to ten as you try to keep on keeping on and avoid traumatic confrontation? Are you doing ten to fifteen as you enjoy the good, work on the bad and avoid the ugly? I am not sure it really matters how many you are doing, but I will recommend that if you think you “do ‘em all” stay humble. Based upon my experience there is no such thing as the perfect family and excitement is probably just around the corner; from time to time some families just do better in business than others.
As the leader of a family business (The Rawls Group) I feel confident contending that all families in business stink at times and a classic characteristic of a good family is a perpetual sense of humility. From the perspective of the renown Dr. Merlot, who has more family war ribbons that Zsa Zsa Gabor, if you get “at-a-boys” in three-fourths of these best practices you have more harmony than the Von Trapp family of Sound of Music fame. If I were put on the spot for this meaningless question, I think the best practices threshold for family business harmony is even lower, say eight to 10. Certainly, regardless of score, no one of sound mind, which certainly does not include Dr. Merlot, would think it was worth the effort to argue with anyone claiming to have a harmonious family.
To the point of this article, with respect to your family’s best practices, give yourself a pat on the back as good family interaction rarely comes without hard work and sacrifice. With respect to those practices you are not doing, give them some thought. Consider if your family could do more. Your prospects of harmony and family business succession will improve just from thinking about how you can enhance communication and relationships within your family.
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.”