I was recently struggling through a seminar on the subject of building high performance business teams. This is a subject in which I have keen interest because everyone who is seeking succession is also endeavoring to build a high performance organization that generates pleased parents, satisfied customers, happy employees, content vendors and lots of profits. I am a ceaseless proponent of the concept that success is the fundamental prerequisite to succession.
However, suffering from a prior evening with the irrepressible Dr. Merlot and one too many ribs from the buffet lunch, I was struggling in and out of attentiveness to a speaker who I presumed was going to be laying down some good stuff. With the number one goal of avoiding an embarrassing face plant into my nasty coffee, the term “discretionary effort” caught my attention. Appreciative of momentary consciousness, I heard the speaker define “effort” as what an employee thinks is a fair trade for what you are paying them for filling a role in your organization and dispassionately following the processes and procedures you said were required of the position. The speaker then continued on to define “discretionary effort” as the effort expressed by team members above and beyond what is expected of them. Those exhibiting discretionary effort are passionately working for your business, not compensation. They represent your profit potential because they are giving more to your business than what they are paid. They assume that if they respect, enjoy or maybe even love what they are doing and the people they are doing it with, the money will take care of itself. As a now fully awake and functioning member of the seminar, I was feeling good that I had gotten the message: try to avoid employees who simply put forth effort and score impassioned team members who don’t watch the clock and routinely display discretionary effort.
As the seminar ended, I was pleased with myself for gaining new babble material about old management concepts. However my brain kept circling this “discretionable effort” concept as it relates to family business succession. Remembering the frequent rhetoric of Dr. Merlot, I acknowledged that my questions were many but my answers were few. The most cumbersome question I seem to face as a succession planner is why most family businesses struggle with unity, harmony and teamwork. Why does this familiarity work to the disadvantage of most families in business, lead to contempt more often than natural compatibility and synergy? With no other recourse, I pursued Dr. Merlot that evening in hopes that he could help me answer my question. His response was classic, “It’s not a contradiction, it’s a ‘contraquestion’; a befuddling question because that only leads to more questions.” As I was about to break out in laughter at Dr. Merlot’s bizarre thinking and infamous word-alchemy, it hit me, the Family Business Contradiction: there is no choice involved in becoming a member of a family but there is a choice involved in being a member of a family business team.
For further explanation of this contradiction, as we grow from a baby to a child we come to consciousness that we have been placed by God or depending on your belief the genetic pachinko machine, into a family, for better or for worse. As we mature we recognize that we did not have a choice with respect to those who primarily mold our values, perspectives and personalities. We come to realize and generally appreciate that those around us are our mom, dad, brother and sister. We accept these circumstances because no one has told us we have any options. Some recognize that this fate includes a family business. And in some situations, these family business circumstances involve opportunities or even pressures to join parents, siblings, cousins, etc. in the business. As a result some family members consciously make a choice that they are going to be part of the family’s business and some family members just go with the flow and find themselves employed in the business without ever making a conscious choice that “this is what I want to do.” These who go with the flow and accept the opportunity to participate or acquiesce to the pressure to participate become family member employees (FMEs). As employees they put out effort that they believe is a fair trade for what they are being paid; fill their designated role; and simply do as they are told. The notable characteristic of the FME is they are in the wagon, going along for the ride and have not made a choice to be a family team member (FTM).
In stark contrast, the family team member is out of the wagon pushing with their heart and body showing discretionary effort. The family team member is passionately working for the business, not compensation; and predictably giving more to the business than what they are paid. This difference accentuates the contradiction that being in a family business does not always involve a choice but being a family team member does. Being a FTM requires a choice to subordinate pride for an opportunity to contribute. You can pick out the FTMs because you will hear them say bizarre things such as: just put me in the game coach, I don’t have to be the quarterback; I am not concerned about my title, I just want to show you I can contribute; I am not worried about my next promotion because I am focused on mastering my current assignment to the best of my ability; I am not worried about compensation, I’ll live within what you are paying me; or most bizarre (just kidding), you are the leader(s) and I assume you’ll ask my opinion when you think I have something substantive to offer. FTMs take the high road with respect to those combustible issues that tend to bleed the fun, excitement and hyper productivity potential out of the family business.
My point is that the foundation and pathway to increasing the productivity of the family business is for all family members to ask themselves, “Have I made a choice to be a family team member and if not do I understand how I am impacting my family and business? Mentally and emotionally am I expecting to harvest my entitlements or am I trying to find a way to contribute towards the family legacy.” Any of you family team members who are feeling discouraged because you have FMEs who you do not believe will ever choose to make a commitment to the team should stop, recognize who you are dealing with, and deal with the lemons (FMEs) as best you can within the limits of your family culture or the puts and calls of your shareholder agreements. Accept that some of your kindred are cut out to be riders not pushers and begin directing your discretionable effort to make up for their lack of passion and commitment. Then start making lemonade by not allowing the FMEs to wear down your enthusiasm or get in the way of your team’s plan to build a performance culture.