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Drop the baggage

Karen Vinton is a family business consultant with Vinton Consulting.

If an heir is to be accepted by the workforce as a valid and hard-working employee, they have to prove they can contribute. At the same time they have to lose the old image of themselves as a free-loading teenager. Karen Vinton sets out the steps to success

You have made the big decision: you decided to accept the position that your mother has offered you in the family business. Tomorrow is your first day at work and your goal is to be a success and to prove you deserve to work there, and not just because you have the right relatives. What do you need to know and do in order to accomplish your goal?

Let's begin by saying that your goal is not an easy one to achieve. Success can be ephemeral in the best of circumstances and being an SOB (son of boss) does not come with any guarantee of success. In fact it has many inherent challenges. However, there are some steps you can take that will help you to achieve your goal.
First you have to recognise that you come to work with a history with which other employees are not burdened. Most new employees start with a clean slate – whatever has happened in the past is in the past. However, in your case, the employees have probably seen all of your baby pictures. They know when you wrecked the family car. They know when you flunked calculus. They will also know when you were elected class president and where you went to university. Even if you have had a "successful" childhood, the employees might be sick hearing about all of your wonderful accomplishments because some parents really like to brag about their children.
If you ever worked for the family business while you were growing up, the other employees will even know more about you. Maybe more than you want them to know. So when you walk through the door, it is possible the employees will not see a mature person, but will see the child that worked in the delivery department when he was 16 years old. You need to recognise that it will take time for everyone to see the "new" you and many of your actions the first few weeks on the job will have a huge impact on how the employees relate to you in years to come. One son I know was never able to get the employees to see him as an adult, primarily because of his continuing immaturity and poor work habits. The employees still saw him as the teenager that worked (some employees called it loafing) there in the summer. This "vision" was reinforced every time the son was late to work or left early to play golf. The employees even still call him by his childhood nickname, Buddy, instead of his real name, David.

When you go to work at a new job, it is important to know a couple things: what your job will be and how it fits into the history of the company. Do not wait to find out what your new job will entail. Talk to your mother or your boss about what your duties are and what the performance expectations are for the job. In order to grow and develop on the job, it is important to get good feedback on your job performance. Asking a parent or other relative for such advice is sometimes difficult. It is difficult to ask and it is difficult to give "advice" to a relative (especially if the feedback is not good). You may want to find a non-relative mentor who would be willing to give you feedback and suggestions. You could also ask one of the company's advisors (attorney, consultants, accountant) to help you. You might also want to consider hiring your own coach or consultant.
Knowing the history of the company is even more important when the business is your family's business. Do not assume that you have learned enough about the business by just listening to dinner conversations. How can you learn more about the business? Talk to the family members who work for the business. Interview family members who have retired from the family business. If your grandmother or grandfather started the business, take them out to lunch and ask them to tell you the story of how the business was started. Find out what contributions the various family members have made to the business.

One family business I worked with had an interesting history and the third generation, who was working in the business, was familiar with the history and knew what contributions each generation had made to the business. This sense of history helped the third generation move the business forward while still respecting the contributions of the previous generations. Because the first and second generations felt valued, they were willing to support the new strategic direction that the third generation developed.

Some families have developed guidelines and requirements for working in the family business. Many families require ­children (even if they are in their 20s) to start "at the bottom" to "prove yourself" before working up to higher positions. If that is your family's policy, accept it, work hard and do not grumble about it. Also, have reasonable expectations for promotions. Do not expect to be promoted every three months. Be prepared to work in a position for a number of years before getting promoted. In fact, in my experience, the most successful heirs/successors, have worked their way "up the organisation" over a number of years.
Through hard work and a series of successes, they have gained the respect of the other employees. In one large commercial construction company, the employees have the utmost respect and admiration for the two brothers (third generation) who now run the company. Both boys started at the business during high school and university summer vacations doing "grunt" work, which meant hot, heavy, physical labour. After university, the boys worked successfully in a number of supervisory/management positions before their father handed over the reins of the business to them when he retired. They gained the respect of the employees because the employees know that the brothers have worked as hard (and probably harder) than everyone else. The brothers have told me that their broad experiences doing various jobs in the company gave them the needed perspective to really understand what all the employees contribute to the company.

You may have just graduated from University and think that your days as a student are over, however, the learning has only just begun. It is important to be a lifelong learner if you want to be successful. You will need to continually improve your management skills, your professional skills and your family business skills. Plus you will need to keep up to date with industry and economic conditions and trends.
One thing that will help you in all areas is reading. Trade and professional magazines can keep you up to date with the latest information about your industry and profession. Magazines, such as Families in Business and Family Business Review, can keep you informed about the issues that face family businesses. Other business magazines and books are also excellent sources of information.

Another way to continue your learning is to participate in professional associations or trade associations. There are literally thousands of such organisations worldwide. Besides being great resources of information, trade and professional associations also give you the opportunity to network with people in your industry or profession. You might also consider getting involved in other local community organisations such as Rotary or Chamber of Commerce. In these groups you can network with other business professionals in your community.

It is highly probable that you did not learn much about family businesses while your were in school, but expanding your knowledge of family business is getting easier all the time. There are various organisations and programs that offer seminars, programmes, newsletters and other resources that can help you continue learning about family business organisations (see box). Participating in these kinds of programmes gives you the opportunity to meet and network with other family businesses. Some programmes have special affinity groups. For example, if you are a second-generation participant in your family business, there might be an affinity group for second-generation employees. Meeting with this group would give you the opportunity to commiserate with others who may be facing work challenges similar to yours. If you are not near an existing programme, consider starting your own affinity group.

Finally, be prepared to work harder and better than everyone else. Just being a family member puts extra pressure on your work performance. In order to be successful and gain the respect of the other workers, you will have to do more and do it better. But the rewards you gain will be worth the efforts. Knowing you deserve the job you have is a feeling worth its weight in gold.

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