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Lessons learned

John Tucker  is Director of the International Centre for Families in Business.

Involving children in the family business is something most owners do, whether it's unconsciously or not. But perhaps they are trying to involve someone in a business in which they have no interest. Encouraging a child to participate in something they have no interest in is a sure way for them not to succeed in that activity.
You need to ask yourself a few questions about your child's relationship with the business and what you have done in encouraging their interest.

What is the balance of the business of the family and business of the business? How much is the business a family? How much is the family a business? How do children differentiate between the business of the business and the business of the family?

Some years ago I conducted a case study of a family business. It was a fourth generation family business being run by a young woman. The business had been run by men in the previous three generations. What I wanted to know was precisely what the current owner had learned about running the business when she was growing up.

When asked she was adamant that there had been no pressure to join the family firm. But on recollecting some of her earliest memories she recalled 'going out on the rounds with Grandpa'. She also recalled being so cold that grandpa needed to ensure there was a hot water bottle for her to cuddle. On one occasion she said there was a radiator leak in the lorry and Grandpa had taken the water from her bottle to keep the lorry from freezing up. This meant that as a child she had learned that whatever happens the business must go on; we must all make sacrifices for the good of the business; and present discomfort is nothing compared to what it might be if the business fails.

Such early experiences inextricably linked the good of the family with the good of the business. So, consciously or unconsciously, lessons were being taught on the importance of the business to the family and how the futures of both were inextricably tied together. More direct lessons were also learned, such as the right price to buy, the right price to sell, how to run a fleet of vehicles, how to organise a 'round', how to do the paperwork and, vitally, how to make a profit.

More subliminal messages were taught too. The mistrust of strangers, the inadequacies of her brothers in running the business and the need to run the business with a firm hand. The long-term needs of the family required the right person to run the business. In among these lessons was the message that long working hours, minimal salaries and few holidays were the norm for family members.

But what she learned ultimately was that there was a lot of sacrifice and the emotional ties that often bind families to make certain decisions were outweighed by the need for the right decision to be made in order to push the business forward. Individuals might get hurt but the business must survive.

Family members treat each other differently than they treat everyone else. Most family members seem surprised and disappointed to be sometimes 'taken for granted', 'interrupted', 'not listened to' or 'treated with less respect' than their family members friends, colleagues at work and sometimes even complete strangers.

We grow up in our families, learning the interpersonal skills that we take with us into the big, wide world. We learn that our own family members do treat us differently than other people. We learn to have a different relationship with those we love and sometimes hate the most in our lives. Often our family members can bring out the worst in us: they usually know which buttons to push. This innocent tendency is due to basic familiarity. Our family members can see our weaknesses, sometimes to be exploited, particularly in the family at work, and know our strengths, sometimes to be admired and leaned on, again in the family at work. One of the real issues is that much learning is moderated by the family context and we have to learn how to learn in the context of non-family relationships. This can often be seen as threatening the stability of the family structure, particularly if 'dad is always right' and dad is also the ­entrepreneurial founding father of the family business.

How does a son learn to deal healthily with authority if he has an overbearing father who also happens to be his boss? This could have been a factor in the example above, which might explain why the running of the business has skipped a generation. It could also explain why the three brothers defer to the grand-daughter, their father's chosen successor. We could also ask whether the influence of the grandfather had any bearing on the development of the chosen successor.
Inter-family relationships are difficult enough without the added complication of the work environment. Integration of the working relationships with the family ­relationships magnifies the way in which learning can be modified by the family context.

children, interest, NXG, Governance
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