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The in-law dilemma

David Gottlieb joined his brothers-in-law and father-in-law in a Chicago-based family real estate business in 1996. In 1999, he and his in-laws founded Full Circle Communities, Inc, a philanthropic nonprofit devoted to the preservation and management of affordable housing, of which he is executive director.

The dilemma of accepting, as an in-law, an opportunity proffered within a family business can be a difficult one. Make sure you know exactly why it's being offered before accepting the 'challenge'

The oldest system of social organisation in the human world is the family. That would make the family business the second oldest system. A family business answers the basic, primordial needs of the most fundamental human system: to create wealth and opportunity, to extend the system into perpetuity, and to make everyone within it neurotic and miserable.

The offer to an in-law to join the family business is, on one level, a lot like any other job offer: the business will present its best face. Its key players will exude harmony and good will, and the job will be presented as the best thing since sliced bread. It may be that, and more, but in a family business as in most things, it's far more complicated than that. As an in-law, your task is to peek behind the curtain and see what values and appetites really govern the family, and how they translate to opportunities within the business.

The task of analysing this opportunity is a difficult one for you, the in-law: there may be pressure from the spouse – either to join or to stay away – and the potential financial rewards and job security that a family business can offer may seem too good to pass up. Conversely, if the chance to stake out a senior position in a family business is rejected out of hand, you, the in-law, may be missing a great opportunity for growth and challenge (not to mention some juicy material for a television drama).

The opportunity to join a family business is best analysed from two different perspectives simultaneously: as a system with strengths and weaknesses; and as a story peopled with specific types of characters playing well-defined roles. These two divergent analytical processes will help you develop a good working knowledge of your in-law family and potential employer. First, analysing the family business as two interlocking and two independent systems can help you approach the family business as an opportunity for significant personal and professional growth, without getting lost in the vortex of family conflict. Second, understanding the personality types within the business will help you understand where the traps and opportunities lie, which relationships are toxic and which are dynamic and healthy.

The ties that blind
To paraphrase Tolstoy, every family with a family business is unhappy in its own unique way. Families bring to a family business everything that makes them unique – behaviour patterns, ways of communicating, ancient alliances and antipathies, and lasting grudges and hurts. These blend to create a miniature society that protects itself against the outside world – sometimes while devouring itself from within.

The business usually bears some startling resemblances to the family. This is borne out in the way individual family members harness their strengths and expose their weaknesses: Mona is great at organising family get-togethers and birthday parties, but she lacks diplomacy in one-on-one situations. She is a dynamic leader and organising force in the business, but she intimidates people and she's isolated. Bobby, on the other hand, is a charmer and a natural raconteur, tells great jokes and loves playing with his nephews and nieces. He could be a terrific ambassador or salesman for the business. Unfortunately, he has little in the way of ambition or capacity for detail.

These fictional siblings may sound like they have little in common. Nonetheless, under the right conditions, Bobby and Mona's skills can form the basis for a strong family business leadership team. Again, in-law be warned: if these siblings spend more time laying traps for each other than building the business, you'd be better off avoiding not just their family gatherings but their job offer, too.

In-laws are sometimes the best things to happen to a family business. They may change the way the family's individual members see themselves and interact with each other. In-laws can help surmount old patterns and resolve persistent conflicts, thereby creating a more heterogeneous and forward-thinking company.

On the other hand, they are also positioned to become lightning rods for dormant conflict between other family members and/or in-laws. They might be the victims of deflected anger or jealousy. And, of course, the family may just be exploiting them as a means to draw a wayward child back into the fold.

The sooner you, dear in-law, can do your due diligence on the family, the better – especially if an offer to join the business is in the pipeline but not yet delivered. It's hard to know the real value of the opportunity proffered unless you can clearly see why it's being offered.

What's your role?
Family businesses are like the different aspects of one personality: united into one entity with a set of goals and objectives, but often hampered from within by conflict between factions. Before becoming part of such a system, you must ask yourself the following questions.

What roles in your life will you be giving up?
Every opportunity requires a corresponding sacrifice. For you, moving into a family business will mean giving up certain roles in your home, professional and married life. These sacrifices deserve close consideration: you will be subordinating yourself and your goals to the identity and aspirations of a system of which you're not an organic part. This will change the way your spouse sees you, the way your children see you, and the way you see yourself. Are these changes positive? Can they be managed positively?

What roles – in the business and the family – are you being asked to fill?
These questions are intertwined, as are the family and the business. The latter has formal needs to address and it has chosen you to meet those needs. In that respect, it's not so different from other job offers. Can you fill the need the position is designed to address? What are the growth prospects for the position? What kind of trust and responsibility is being placed upon you?

The former has a longer history and will be harder to redirect or influence. What is the family lacking that it hopes you'll provide? Is it just bringing the spouse back to his hometown? Or is it to press you into service as a mediator or a gladiator? Are you expected to be a diplomat or a doormat? Which of your strengths – and weaknesses – do your in-laws want to take advantage of? Understand that if you, the in-law, identify and try to counteract well-established family tendencies, you may succeed. However, it's also possible you'll be blamed for a range of problems you weren't even aware of.

Find the fault-lines
As an outsider, you, the in-law, must learn certain facts before signing on. You also must learn the communication modes and signals that the family members have employed and taken for granted their entire lives – for example, not being allowed to finish a sentence, or being treated with withering sarcasm, may actually be signs that you've been welcomed into the family.

Then, once you are part of it, there are certain things you must help the system unlearn. Drawing a family genogram helps you understand how information is gathered, distributed and analysed throughout the family system. A family genogram is basically a family tree adapted to serve as a map of conflicted and harmonious relationships within the business-owning family. A genogram should review these relationships over at least two generations. However, if the business is several generations old, the genogram should focus on the three most recent generations. This chart of stresses and strengths demonstrates how the system will most likely impact the in-law. Once the system is mapped, the identification of the basic personality types in the family business helps give a fuller picture.

Once you've mapped the genogram, try to understand how family dynamics would flow towards you. This will help you understand why you've been asked into the business. For example, if your mother-in-law is strongly protective of your spouse, she may have engineered your entry into the business so that the business could 'provide for him'. Perhaps your father-in-law doubts your ability to provide for his darling child, and that only an equity stake in a going concern will put his mind at rest. It's possible that inviting you into the business is a way of keeping your spouse out.

And of course, there's always the possibility, however slim, that your skills are just what the business needs, and your personality is just what the family wants!

Killing the deal, every day
Now that you've analysed the players in the family business system, you must address these key questions:

- What benefits do you derive from playing this role? (What do you get, not just in monetary compensation or perks, but in pride, personal growth, renewal, freedom?);
- What is this role costing you? (Does it sustain you in more than the material sense? Must you trade away a significant amount of autonomy or self-respect in order to fill the role?); and
- Is it a net positive? (Adding up the pluses and minuses, where do you come out?).

No matter how lucrative, no matter how rewarding on a professional level, if you join the business, you must regularly re-examine the deal you have made – with your partners, your spouse and yourself. More than examining it, you must kill it, because if you don't, it could well turn on you.

This system of due diligence will help ensure that you aren't lulled into accepting family patterns and relationships as unassailable 'truths'. The family business as a model has strengths and weaknesses, and if the weaknesses aren't continually examined and counteracted, they will only grow more entrenched and more toxic.

This isn't to say that you should designate yourself as the 'Family Business Saviour' – only that you learn the relationships and the players, so that the role you're asked to play isn't a thankless one with an unhappy ending.

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