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Entrepreneurial Couples Archive

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Articles - Entrepreneurial Couples

How to fight fair in a family firm

Thursday, February 29, 1996




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


Ask yourself who you would rather work with, a family member or a trusted friend or colleague. List five family members whom you trust and five friends or colleagues whom you trust. Of these ten people, with whom would you choose to start a brand new business? When I asked this question recently of attendees at a trade show, the majority said they would work with a friend before they would a family member. Their reasoning is that they wouldn't want to risk alienating a family member and upsetting the entire family if the business partnership should not work out. What is most interesting about their responses is that a good 90% of the attendees were already working in a family firm! While the rewards of working with the ones you love are many, such as the benefit of working with someone whom you trust and who will work as hard as you do, there are significant liabilities. The major one that plagues most family firms is the inability to resolve conflict constructively. This inability leads to resentment, hostility, alienation and family feuds. Family firms have the unique distinction of blending both the needs of a family and the needs of a thriving business. While the goal of the business is growth through competition, the goal of the family is to nurture and protect all family members. As a result, family firms grow more slowly than non-family owned firms because the business growth is compromised by the need to protect family members, even those who do not really belong in the business. Conflict in any family is disagreeable, but it is even more so in a family that also works together. Ordinary conflicts that other business owners have to deal with are submerged in a family business for fear of "hurting" a family member's feelings, or offending one's parent or spouse.The need to protect the family system, to keep this system in tact, is quite strong. All of us grew up with the knowledge that to betray a family rule was to risk the safety of the family. Anthropologists suggest that this protection of the family system is a part of our survival as a species.

We seem to have a genetic need to belong to a family where we can share food, shelter and emotional comfort with our kinfolk. Political experiments that disrupt the standard family unit usually do not last. Research is even showing that children learn better in school if educators structure assignments to better represent individual student's family values. Given that belonging to a family is a stronger need than striking out on one's own, families tend to discourage conflict and confrontation. This keeps family members home. However, in a business, avoiding conflict can lead to serious problems. Sometimes out of conflicts arise tremendous ideas for the growth and success of the business. Wrestling with ideas brings out resolutions never before thought of and it often clears the path for junior members of an organization to show what they are made of. But in family firms, all too often conflicts get submerged rather than aired in a healthy context. Those of you who currently work with your spouse or other family members may be thinking that conflict is rampant in your family. The problem is that the frequent fighting may not be solving anything. When ordinary conflicts get submerged as they too often do in family firms, things fester. Family members may brood or bicker but never really confront the issue head on. Sometimes there is a major blow up at the office, but this is not healthy confrontation. This is merely "letting off steam," only to have it build up again until the next fight. Some of the signs of submerged conflict in family firms are (1) the increase in alcoholism and drug dependence among family firm members; (2) infidelity and multiple marriages or liaisons; (3) child abuse; (4) acting-out children (i.e., poor grades, suicide threats, drug abuse, numerous traffic violations, disregard for the rights of others); (5) chronic depression; (6) frequent fighting to no end.

In order to get to the bottom of conflicts, family firm members need to be brave. You need to trust that you are doing what's best for the family as well as the business by confronting family problems. Even if you have the minority view, it may be an important view. In your family and family firm there may be room for more than one view. Confrontation need not be nasty and abusive. Confrontation is just "taking the bull by the horns." Be respectful but firm. Acknowledge that you may not be right, but that the family needs to talk. Keep talking until the family has come to a mutually agreeable solution. Most people report that they feel closer to those with whom they have resolved conflicts. The misunderstandings that lead to the conflicts are often just that, misunderstandings, not a major difference in values. And if you discover that there is a major difference in values and these differences are not good for the business, it's best to discover these differences so that sound business decisions can be made. If a father and son really want to take the business in different directions, perhaps they should part the business, not maintain a cool emotional distance from each other in the office. But rest assured whether a member leaves the business or not, the family goes on forever. Conflict and confrontation strengthen a family, despite the unpleasantness in the moment of unresolved dissension. While it's true that families take on different shapes and sizes over the years as children marry, grandchildren are born, founders die, even an occasional divorce, the family as an entity survives. The same cannot be said for a business. It can be sold or dissolved permanently. One of my daughters brought home this poem by an unknown author and I think it sums up the values that any family business should be proud to live by.

Our family's like a patchwork quilt With kindness gently sewn. Each piece is an original With a beauty of its own. With threads of warmth and happiness It's tightly stitched together To last in love throughout the years --- Our family is forever.

Copreneurs and the family business Christmas

Thursday, December 01, 1994




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


"SHOWER - COFFEE - GO!" That's how one young husband and owner of a successful family firm starts his day. His wife of five years, however, has a much more complex morning routine. After making her husband's coffee, she feeds the baby his bottle until he falls asleep again. Then she wakes the toddler, dresses him and gets his breakfast. After brushing the toddler's teeth, he goes off to play leaving Mom to shower and dress for work. Before the wife leaves the house she confers with the nanny about any last minute needs of the baby. Then she gathers up the toddler and leaves for work. After dropping the toddler off at day-care, she arrives at work by 9:00 am. Did she get breakfast? By this time the factory is humming. The husband is deep into his work behind closed doors. The young wife takes the next hour to "check in" with the supervisors and foremen. She chats with the employees as she walks through the hall to her office. Once behind her desk, she works non-stop, as does her husband for the remainder of the day, which often lasts well into the evening. They rarely see each other throughout the workday except for a cursory "check-in" regarding mutual decisions. Lunch is an apple or a cup of yoghurt at their desks. The daily routine of this couple is typical of entrepreneurial couples or copreneurs as they are popularly called. Not all copreneurs have young children, nor do they work in the same building. Some ride to work together. Some work out of their homes. But regardless of the physical differences the one thing copreneurs have in common is the hard work of balancing the two worlds of marital relationship and business partnership --- or LOVE AND WORK. This balancing act can take its toll on a couple, the family and the business, especially at the Christmas season, with the added stress of preparing for the holiday. There are vacations to plan for, employee bonuses and Christmas parties, out of town guests, last minute "rush" orders to fill, school and community functions to attend, and so on. The research shows that generally the stress is felt most strongly by the wife, who must manage the additional holiday responsibilities along with the routine family responsibilities and her work responsibilities.

While the husband feels the pressure too, he can compensate by working longer hours at the business. Herein, lies the problems for many copreneurs. Although it is tiring to work longer hours, it is actually more tiring to have to juggle two jobs (home and work), two schedules and two different kinds of responsibilities, as any copreneurial wife is aware. Anyone who has worked rotating shifts knows what a toll it takes on one's health and social life. The two worlds of Love and Work are very different really. Trying to bring them together in a family-owned business creates constant friction. Yet family firms are a natural form of human enterprise. This form of enterprise has been with us for centuries. And most copreneurs report intense satisfaction from working with their spouses. The reason for this constant friction is that the purpose or the drive behind the business is competition and growth. Whereas, the purpose or drive behind a family organization is nurturing and protection of family members. The interaction of these two systems (family and business) necessitates accommodations to each system. Research has shown that family firms grow at a much slower rate than non-family owned firms. Simply, the reason is that the family system will not allow competition and business growth at the expense of the family. For example, a child who works in the business, but who is not suited for the job, will be retained because of the need to "take care of" all family members. Or a husband and wife will continue a business that is failing because it is the one thing they do together. Add to this difficult balancing act the stresses of the holiday season and the likelihood of an "explosion" at Christmas is dramatically increased. Actually the explosion is just as likely to happen after Christmas with the post-holiday depression. Not only is business slower than before Christmas, but all of the illusions we harbor about warm family togetherness at the holidays may not have been fulfilled. There are several things you can do to prevent the worst possible case scenario and to have a much more meaningful Family/Business Christmas.

First, assess the division of responsibilities between copreneurial husband and wife. Is it really necessary that the majority of the burden be carried by the wife to maintain the family? Perhaps she is better suited to the task, especially when there are young children, but it certainly takes its toll on the marriage to have the worlds of love and work so rigidly defined. With baby changing tables now being installed in the Men's room, it's not so hard for dads to assume more of these responsibilities. Secondly, assess your expectations of the holiday season. Remember now that you both work. The typical copreneurial husband works 60 hours a week in the business. The typical copreneurial wife works 49 hours a week in the business; then she goes home and puts in another 49! Don't expect that you can attend every function or have a perfectly decorated home. Some people even eat Christmas dinner at a restaurant. In other words, look at your work and home responsibilities and decide what you can and can't reasonably be expected to accomplish. Thirdly, along the lines of expectations, dig down deep and look at your feelings about the holidays. Many people don't have extended kin to visit at Christmas. Many people even have unpleasant memories about previous holidays. Many people are experiencing current problems in their lives that won't go away with Christmas or New Years. Don't stick your head in the sand and pretend that wishing will make this holiday a warm, wonderful Norman Rockwell affair. Notice your feelings --- sadness, anger, grief --- and if they are intense talk to a psychologist. Dealing with your feelings now will enable you to ease through the season and prevent the explosions that come from built up stress due to unrealized expectations. Finally, use those entrepreneurial traits that set you apart from other people, such as individualism, creativity, determination, willingness to work hard. With your spouse negotiate the kind of unique relationship that works best for you. Don't rely on stereotypes to define your roles at work and home. You can set up anything you want; you're the boss. Also Normal Rockwell Christmases are not the only kind to have. Start some new traditions that fit your lifestyle. For example, spend a quiet Christmas eve at home. Or if you have no extended kin to visit, invite friends over. Instead of a garish display of presents under the tree for the children, take gifts to the local children's hospital. Cater dinner. Have pizza. Someday your grandchildren will think that Christmas has always been a pizza party followed by a trip to the children's hospital to sing carols.