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Articles - Marital Problems in the Family - Business

Successful couples in business share traits that keep love, business alive

Friday, September 12, 2003

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

One of the most challenging of lifestyles is working with your spouse in a thriving business. Most entrepreneurial couples love the opportunity to be independent, in charge of their own destinies, and to work along side the one they love and trust most.

What do successful entrepreneurial couples know about keeping a marriage and a business on track? It makes sense to find out what works for them. Out of these strategies, you may find a nugget that applies to you and your spouse.

100% - 100% Rule

Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet many entrepreneurial couples and there is a pattern among those who have long-term happy marriages interwoven with a prosperous business life. First and foremost they follow the 100% - 100% Rule. That is, each partner considers her or himself 100% responsible for the quality of her or his individual life as well as their joint ventures (i.e., parenting, household duties, managing a business).

While most couples follow a 50% - 50% Rule, meeting each other half way, by following the 100% - 100% Rule entrepreneurial couples meet each other all of the way.

They each put his or her whole self, talents, intuitions, and muscle into the relationship and business partnership, making each equally responsible for the outcome. Even though for efficiency's sake they may divide up duties along the lines of who is most capable or available, they still consider themselves as responsible as their partner for the success of the goal.

Encourage Competition

Without question entrepreneurs are achievers and highly competitive. Without these qualities they could not create a successful business venture. Sometimes it is not always easy to admit that you are in competition with your spouse, but once the truth comes out you are in a much better position to work with the inevitable.

Instead of being embarrassed by your competitive nature, or suppressing it or even denying it, admit it and acknowledge the problem to your spouse. Then do what successful entrepreneurial couples do . . . they encourage it!

Believe it or not, successful entrepreneurial couples actually encourage competition in their partners but they do put their relationship off limits. That is, their love for each other and commitment to their marriage and family life come before business needs.

If they are working full time together in their joint venture, there are rewards and incentives built into the business for each partner to achieve. Instead of paying only the founder of the business, the supportive spouse is also paid what they are worth and not a penny less.

Each partner is encouraged by the other to achieve their dreams, to express their strengths, to utilize their talents. If this means besting your partner in a career or business move, it shouldn't be threatening to your spouse, but viewed as a challenge to work toward his or her own excellence.

Worrying about ego or pride is a waste of precious energy that can better be used in pursuit of your dreams. Harness that competitive spirit and re-direct your achievement need toward the things you do best at the business or at home. That way not only do you succeed, but your spouse, family, business and community benefits too.

Make Love the Top Priority

With the pull of achievement needs and competitiveness in the business world, entrepreneurial couples have their work cut out for them to sustain balance in their personal lives. Making time for friendship, romance and family togetherness is difficult but imperative.

Again, successful entrepreneurial couples have figured out how to make love the top priority. They have abandoned the old methods that worked when they were younger and had free time. They realize that spontaneity or waiting for the "right moment" is not likely to happen today with their lives full of so many responsibilities.

Rather, they realize that they have to plan for love to happen and be sustained. And they build a structure they can count on to keep these priorities straight.

For example, they schedule once-a-week "dates" with each other. They make time in the morning or at the end of each day for uninterrupted discussions about everything that is necessary to keep the flow smooth. They go on frequent mini-vacations to pull themselves away from the demands of entrepreneurial life. They each volunteer their time to one community cause or child-related activity. All of these approaches help you remember why on earth you are working so hard anyway . . . to share your successes with the ones you love.

Renegotiate the Terms of the Partnership

By making love the top priority, entrepreneurial couples have a simple way to notice when they need to reorient their lives. If there is no time to give or receive love, from each other or the others in their lives, then it becomes time to renegotiate the terms of the partnership. If life isn't meaningful or fun for either of you, it is time to re-evaluate the marriage or the business partnership or both.

In order to keep a business healthy, a business owner must not only be aware of market trends, but they must also be prepared to alter their business plan accordingly. Within your personal life, it is no different. A marriage agreement that worked when you were twenty, may be outdated for a couple in their forties. Or aspects of the marriage contract may be archaic while others are still solid. Don't throw the baby out with the bath as the saying goes, but if some things need changing, do it now, or suffer the consequences of a loveless marriage.

I have met too many entrepreneurial couples where the only thing holding them together is the business. They have forgotten that the business is a function of their love for each other. By recognizing that the love is diminishing in your relationship and by being willing to renegotiate the terms of your marriage and partnership, you may be able to rekindle the romance and re-direct the business to new heights.

The Guidelines to Success

Although it is a lot work to maintain a healthy personal relationship among the busy-ness of entrepreneurial life, the methods of doing so are simple. Successful entrepreneurial couples already know these secrets. Now it's your turn to cash in on what they know.

Follow the 100% - 100% Rule and you will have a trusted full-time partner at your side.

Encourage achievement and competition in your partner and you will share the fruits of his or her success along with your own.

When you make love the top priority, you always have a marker to guide your decisions and direction in life.

Finally, when you get off course, stop and renegotiate the terms of the contract, so that you can nurture and sustain business and marriage growth.

Is it time to renegotiate your marriage/business contract?

Thursday, January 02, 2003

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

Think for a moment about the tasks you perform in your role as husband or wife. Who does the laundry? Who cooks breakfast? Who chauffeurs the children to events? Who balances the checkbook? Who changes the oil in the car?

Now think again about the task assignments at work (for those of you who work with your spouse this is particularly meaningful). Who does the bookkeeping? Who greets the customer? Who hires new employees? Who negotiates the contracts? Where does the "Buck stop"?

Don't be limited by the few questions mentioned in the last two paragraphs. Make a list of your duties and those of your spouse and really evaluate the division of labor, both at home and work. Then ask yourself (and your spouse), just how did we arrive at this division of responsibilities anyway?

Most married couples never stop to think about consciously discussing duties, tasks, chores, and responsibilities. Things just follow a certain course and you are either happy with it or not.

Actually the research shows that in most family firms, job assignments both at home and at work follow traditional gender divisions of responsibility. That is, men do "men's work" and women do "women's work." At work the wives generally handle the bookkeeping and support work and at home they take care of cooking, cleaning and children. The husbands are the leaders and decision makers at work (and at home), while at home they handle small repairs.

In contrast, dual-career couples have a non-traditional division of responsibilities. Wives and husbands are generally responsible for leadership and decision-making at work. At home, these couples think of themselves as "social partners" who are equally responsible for household and childcare duties. This non-traditional style is called "egalitarian."

Regardless of the marital style, traditional or egalitarian, all couples, both copreneurs and dual-career couples, report satisfaction with their style. The traditional copreneurs do not desire an egalitarian style and the egalitarian dual-career couples do not desire a more traditional style. This concept is called "equity." It means that even if the division of responsibilities isn't equal (at home or work), nor based upon assignment to the most qualified, these couples feel that the assignment is fair.

But what about those copreneurs who desire an egalitarian style? Or those dual-career couples who desire a more traditional style? Or what if you and your spouse are a blend of the two, not really fitting into either camp? Then your job is much more difficult, but not impossible. It becomes necessary to sit down together and analyze your situation. First, answer the question, "what do you want?"

Your marriage contract is more than a marriage license. It is a group of assumptions that you make about marriage and your partner and yourself. The assumptions you first made at age 22 may not fit for you at 42. The assumptions that guided you through those first years were probably modified when the children came along. They were further modified as the children entered college or when you started your business. Yet, probably neither one of you thought to sit down and analyze what you wanted or what was best given the new set of circumstances.

So your first task is to answer the question, "what do you want now in your marriage and business partnership, considering your current situation?" Be flexible. Be willing to let go of old ways that worked once, but are no longer appropriate. Both partners in the marriage must feel that the division of responsibilities is equitable, but does the division also represent what is best for the business and each of you personally and professionally?

Another important task in this renegotiation of the marriage/business-partnership contract is to quell the inevitable fears that arise. I often hear people say, "I'm not going to change; you knew who I was when you married me; you better be happy with that!"

Unfortunately, if you give into these fears your marriage and the business are in for a rude awakening. Things do change and people move on. All of us change daily and it's doubtful that you are the same person you were twenty or thirty years ago, and neither is your spouse. When you hear your spouse complaining about change, or hear these words coming from yourself, realize that they are coming from a place of fear...fear of change and fear of the unknown. Change is inevitable and it will overtake you, or you can plan a little and guide the change process. It's your choice.

Successful marriages are neither traditional nor egalitarian, but are based upon a flexible marriage contract, one that changes with the needs and circumstances of the individuals involved. Just as a business must be aware of competition and marketplace factors, and change or lose, a marriage faces the same perils. While it is important to keep certain basic values in tact, there is much room for negotiation and change throughout the life of the marriage and the business.

Nancy and Steven had a traditional marriage during the first 30 years. Nancy helped put Steven through medical school, took care of the children, and even helped set up Steven's office. When the children were old enough she moved from part-time to full time in the clinic, managing the business. Steven meanwhile buried himself in his work and over the years developed a successful medical practice and the respect of his patients.

At the thirty-year mark, however, Nancy got restless. The kids were grown and grandchildren on the way. Steven didn't really need her in the office anymore, so she dropped back to part-time again, and went back to school. Four years later she was a lawyer. In order to help Nancy get going in her new profession, Steven peddled back on his practice by finding a responsible M.D. partner to take on some of his caseload.

Although it takes planning and recognition of keeping things equitable, it is possible to change marital and business styles when the need arises. Evaluate your situation now. Is it time to talk with your spouse and make some changes before they erupt into irreconcilable differences? Or if they are already erupting, take them on and make the most of the change for personal, marital and business growth.

Recognize and interpret problems before the crisis occurs

Thursday, October 31, 2002

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

It may be time-consuming to learn that new computer program, or to revamp your marketing strategy, or to take time from work just to go for a walk, but in the long run you may save yourself a lot of grief. All too often we apply a band-aid when surgery was needed.

When problem solving the first question to ask yourself is, "Is this thing I am observing the signal or the problem?" Recognizing and interpreting the signals that others give us is quite a complex process I realize, but you can improve your skills. And if you are willing to take the time to learn, you can stop a number of crises before they materialize.

For example, I often hear from family business owners that they do not have enough time to attend to themselves or their personal relationships. It's all work and no play. This is a signal that if ignored will grow into a more serious problem.

You need to ask yourself why are you working so hard? Is that your goal? Most people own a family firm because they have a close-knit family who enjoys being together and who can share their talents in a join venture. But if you are too busy managing the nuts and bolts of the business and have no time to really enjoy and communicate with your family, aren't you overriding one of the reasons why you started a family business in the first place?

Mistaking signals for the problem is another common error. When a person is angry or aggressive, we tend to listen, but when a person is quiet or passive, we tend to ignore them. Actually, those behaviors are signals of something. Just what they are signals of remains to be discovered.

When one of my daughters was learning her math facts in elementary school, she would complain that she didn't understand. She hid her papers or just threw them away. She avoided math homework as much as she could. As a result, my husband and I were spending hours each week tutoring her, sometimes staying up for hours coaxing her to try. We even began to wonder if she had a learning disability.

When her teacher suggested that she might be manipulated us, I was shocked. She was always such a nice, sweet, lovable child. She never sucked her thumb or threw a tantrum (pretty rare, right?}. Could she be "snowing" us?

To test out the theory I set up a new system of rewards. If she completed her homework within 30 minutes, without any complaining and without any help from her parents, she could earn a fifty-cent "commission" on her allowance. It only took one day. She knew the math facts all along.

One husband was beside himself because his wife could not keep the house clean. The couple ran the business from their home. Although the husband was out all day with customers, the wife was at home taking care of the four small children, answering business calls, and running the company office. The couple had already problem solved somewhat and come up with occasional day care and even a once a month housecleaner, but still the house was a mess.

The problem was they were focusing on the messy house instead of what it represented. In this case, it represented that the wife was torn about her goals. She wanted to be part of the business, but she also wanted to parent her children. Making more time for her to clean the house, a chore she really didn't like anyway, wasn't the solution. What worked, however, was to set up a system where she could participate in both worlds without them overlapping so much.

The company office was moved from the dining table to a separate room off the garage. Then the wife devised a schedule that kept her work time separate from her family time. Using these two boundaries, the workspace and the time frame, she was able to be fully with her work and fully with her children when she wanted to.

The bottom line here is that all human behavior is meaningful. But the meaning may come disguised as signals that look like problems themselves. Alcoholism is a signal of a pervasive illness. Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, may be a sign of overwork, too much stress, a lack of parental guidance, or even confusion in the work place. If you try to solve the problem of alcoholism by reducing the person's stress at work, the alcoholic may just have more time to drink. Likewise, if you recommend alcohol treatment for the person who is abusing alcohol, they may stop drinking but find other self-destructive methods to cope with problems at work.

Whenever I am confronted with this dilemma (Is it a signal or a problem?), I ask myself, "How does this behavior make sense to the person engaging in the behavior?" Don't ask, "How does it make sense to me?"

If the behavior belongs to someone else, chances are it makes sense in their model of reality, which may look very different than yours. In the case of the couple with the messy house, what made sense according to the wife's model of reality is that the wife wanted to have a neat house but she wanted something else more. In order to get a clean house, it was necessary to help her accomplish what was more important first.

One final reminder, while some solutions are easy and superficial, many problems require deeper probing. While a band-aid may suffice for a while, it will save a lot of wasted energy and questioning if surgery is done immediately.

On that note, now is the time to learn that new computer program, revamp your marketing strategy, and take the time from work to just go for a walk.

Addiction 'conspiracy' of silence hurts the family and business

Friday, September 06, 2002

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

Every night at about 10:30 or 11:00 the fighting would start and carry on for two to three hours or more until the couple got so tired they just fell asleep. This was the culmination of a long day at the office where Joan and Jack, wife and husband, worked side-by-side running their successful business.

By the end of the workday Joan frequently wanted to stop off at a bar for a drink to "unwind" before heading for home to dinner. Jack, in a separate car would go home, relieve the babysitter, and start dinner. When his wife got home she was relaxed and cheerful, the alcohol having taken the edge off of the day's stress. Two more glasses of wine at dinner contributed to her changing personality.

As the evening progressed, Jack would busy himself with settling the children down for the evening. He didn't mind doing most of the domestic chores because he understood that Joan didn't have as much physical stamina as he. When it was time to give the children a good night kiss, he would call to their mother, whom he often found napping on the couch.

A couple more drinks later Joan was no longer napping, no longer cheerful. Her irritability was growing. Dumbfounded, Jack could not figure out why she was mad at him. The accusations started flying, defensive walls shot up and the arguing would escalate to unreasonable and irrational proportions.

Alcoholism and other drug abuse is an epidemic in our country. We are all aware of the general problem nationwide. There are numerous programs in our schools to prevent drug abuse among our youth. The courts are less and less tolerant of alcohol related traffic infractions. Celebrities have established treatment programs to sober up movie stars and politicians.

Many employers are taking a hard look at the problems caused by drug abuse and alcohol addiction. Employers recognize the loss attributable to drugs in terms of lowered production, increased accidents, lower quality work, and loss of skilled employees. They have established employee assistance programs and redesigned insurance benefits to create treatment options for employees. These programs not only treat the addict, but the family as well because it is the strength of the family that determines the addict's success in treatment.

The concern reaches to the highest levels in most companies. Whether the employee is the president or the line worker, today's employers are cracking down on drug abuse. No one is allowed to jeopardize the welfare of the company or fellow workers by engaging in dangerous addictive behavior. But the goal is not punishment. Instead, employers want to rehabilitate and return a healthy employee to the job.

Yet among family firms, drug addiction and alcohol abuse are frequently overlooked. Many people who have worked in family firms, yet are not family members, talk about the "secret" at work. The secret that everyone knows is that there is a family member who is addicted or engaging in drug or alcohol abuse, yet no one is to talk about it. The family member is protected not only by the family, but also by a general conspiracy among employees.

In previous columns I have explained how this conspiracy comes to be. The function of the family is to nurture and protect its members. This function is alive and well in a family firm, and usually takes precedence over the welfare of the business or other non-family related employees. This is a rule that families have followed since the beginning of human civilization, and therefore is not likely to change.

If there is an alcoholic in a family firm, be they founder, spouse, son, daughter, or in-law, the family is likely to overlook, condone, deny, rationalize or minimize the problem for the sake of keeping the family system in tact. If the founder is alcoholic, alcoholism may be a family "tradition" that will be hard to break. That is, drinking may be interwoven into the fabric of family life and corporate life.

Leaders in family firms have a tough job. They must weigh the success of the business against the needs of the family. Allowing addictions to go untreated is no way to take care of either the business or the family. By ignoring the problem the addict accepts this as tacit approval of their behavior. And by ignoring the problem, the potential threat to the integrity of the family and business grows. Alcoholism and other addictions leads to the breakdown of the family, just what a family firm wants to avoid.

What can help members of the family firm address these problems is to consider that the addict is fortunate to have the backing of both his/her family as well as his/her business. With the support of the two most important systems in one's life, the addict has increased potential to succeed in treatment. They have a loving family and they have a job to come back to.

Another thing to consider is that everyone in the family has to support the decision to confront the addict and to seek family therapy with them. If there are dissenters, the addict will solicit allies to defend their continued drug abuse. While it is painful to acknowledge one's own addiction, it may be even harder to acknowledge the addiction of a loved one. Often family members feel helpless in the face of the overwhelming problems caused by addiction. Therefore, the "enable " the addict rather than face the problem squarely in the eye.

To deal with the humiliation of recognizing that a family member is alcoholic, education will help. Professional treatment centers emphasize that alcoholism and drug abuse are best understood as diseases. That is, the disease of alcoholism affect the personality in ways that change the one we love. While the alcoholic cannot help that they have a disease (many alcoholics are genetically predisposed to alcoholism), they must be held accountable for their actions. They must be confronted with their irresponsible and manipulative behavior so that they can change it. With professional treatment and ongoing support, they can be returned to their former productive and loving lives.

To learn more, contact Alcoholics Anonymous. They are listed in the telephone directory or you can go to their website You can also visit to find recommended books on the subject.

In any case, if you are a member of a family firm, and you suspect a family member of addiction, do something now. You may the be the only one willing to take the risk to expose the family "secret." But once the secret is out, trust the strength of the family to meet the challenge of recovery. Families are forever, after all.

Entrepreneurial couples can transform criticism into feedback

Thursday, December 13, 2001

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

When couples work together they have the opportunity to work with a partner they love and trust most. They also have the opportunity to see the best and worst of their partner . . . day in and day out. Even with the most enlightened people, this constant togetherness can cause conflict. It's wonderful to have closeness, rapport, and regular praise from your sweetheart. It just doesn't feel as wonderful to have your partner know you so well that they give you regular criticism as well.

Frequently the criticism starts out as a desire to help or to improve your partner, but disintegrates into an argument and hard feelings. The object of the criticism gets defensive and complains that the spouse must not love the person he or she married. And the person delivering the "help" feels rejected and misunderstood. Many couples opt for keeping quiet about these things so as not to start a fight. Others duke it out until someone "wins" which of course means that they got way off the subject. But neither of these approaches really takes care of the problem.

If you think about it your spouse may be one of the best people to help you improve. They probably know you better than anyone else and they probably love you more. If you are working together then they also get to see you in more than one role, so again they are in a unique position to help you grow. And that is what criticism is. It is a critical analysis of your behaviors and an offering of advice on how to change, grow and improve yourself.

If you view criticism from this new perspective it may not be so hard to swallow. For example, psychologists know that a person's IQ continues to grow throughout the lifespan well into old age, if the person is actively engaging in life and learning new things. Our natural instinct is to keep growing but we can't do that if we don't reevaluate from time to and time.

We need to check out old habits, rewrite some scripts, take a few risks, and try anything new to break out of a rut. If we don't attend to this we lose out personally. This is equally true for your business. If you intend on keeping your business healthy, you have to meet the needs of a changing marketplace.

The major problem with criticism is that it's harder to swallow when it comes from someone other than you. And it is even harder to swallow when it comes from someone we care a lot about. It hurts twice as much when the one who we love most thinks we need improving. On the other hand when we decide for ourselves that we need to change something, we give ourselves credit for being very smart to come up with such a good idea. This really seems like a silly game to play. Why not use the collective intelligence of those around you? Criticism from another doesn't make you bad or undesirable. It is just feedback for your enlightenment.

A word to the criticizer is in order here too. Just because you mean well and love your partner, doesn't mean he or she will recognize your good intention, especially if your criticism cuts to the heart of one of their most cherished beliefs. So go easy with the criticism.

The best method for delivering a critical comment is to wait for an opportune moment. For example if your partner is feeling particularly bluesy that day, or just lost an important contract, this is not an opportune moment to size up their inadequacies. However, if they are musing about how they might improve a certain situation you can offer your opinion. Be prepared to remind them that you value many things about them as well. You should always offer praise with a criticism so that your partner hears that you care about them even if you think they should change.

There are times, however, when you are criticizing your partner about something that just doesn't matter or is more a statement about your inability to be flexible than it is about their need to change. Take a good look at your criticisms and ask yourself if they are really necessary. Your partner may be doing the very best he or she can. Most likely your partner is 90% of what you would like in a spouse/business partner, but not everything. That would be hard to come by. Why aren't you satisfied with 90%? It might just be that there is a change you need to make, not your spouse.

Understanding dialog styles may lead to greater business success

Friday, October 05, 2001

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

"I'd like to talk with you about something" she says.

"What now?" he asks with a sigh.

"Well I'd like to know what we are going to do about this problem" she says starting to get frustrated.

"I'll take care of it. Stop pressuring me!" he shouts.

"I'm not pressuring you. I just want to help and I think we should talk about it," she says imploringly.

"I said I'd take care of it. I'm working on it. Why won't you get off my back?" he says emphatically.

If this dialog sounds familiar chances are you are married or in a long term committed relationship. Secondly this type of conversation is even more common for married couples who also happen to be business partners. Probably a week doesn't go by without this type of dialog for entrepreneurial couples. It is not only extremely frustrating to have this miscommunication, but it can wreak havoc in the relationship.

To unravel this miscommunication and ultimately design an improved method of problem solving, you need to understand some gender differences that are the underpinnings of many misunderstandings between men and women.

First, when couples live and work together there is an increased potential for misunderstanding. It is not because entrepreneurial couples are worse communicators than other couples. Rather it is due to the fact that you talk more because you are together more often. The more you are around anyone and the more you talk with that person, the more opportunity there is for miscommunication, misunderstanding and arguments. Whether you like it or not entrepreneurial couples have to be even better communicators and even more patient with each other than do other couples.

Second, when you work with the one you love, misunderstandings carry more weight than they might with someone you are not as emotionally connected with. With your spouse, a parent or a child, you are much more concerned about getting along well with them. You care more what they think of you and if they believe you care about them. This emotional connection means that you are more sensitive to their criticism and potentially more defensive.

Third, men and women problem solve differently. Because men are very goal oriented problems become something they need to conquer. Women on the other hand are process oriented. This means they approach problems as opportunities to explore options. While men are competitive and want to prove themselves by solving the problem on their own, women strive to include others in the process of problem solving to come up with a group decision.

So if we take another look at the dialog above with these three considerations in mind, the miscommunication is much easier to unravel. First, the wife is trying to have a conversation with her husband about a subject that they have probably beaten to death, and with no resolution. She means well, but he feels like she is just shoving his face into the problem once again. Secondly, the husband also believes that she is accusing him of failing to solve the problem or to solve it quickly enough. In reality, she is offering to help him solve it. Third, the wife assumes that her husband understands that she is trying to help when she asks questions, but he can only hear that she is asking questions he cannot answer.

Let's take a look at a revised dialog where the husband and wife recognize the communication differences between them and actually get to the bottom of the problem to be solved.

"I know that we have talked about this subject until both of us are tired of it. And I know that you have been working hard to think of a way to take care of this problem. I have a few more ideas that I want to share with you to see if we can finally come up with a solution. OK?" she asks.

"You're right I am tired of it and I am doing the best I can. What more do you want from me?" he asks, with frustration.

"What I want is to help. I think the best solution will come from the two of us putting our heads together and brainstorming some ideas that will work for both of us. I want to take care of this as much as you do and I want to be part of the solution," she says.

"Well I'd be happy to turn the problem over to you if you think you can handle it any better," he retorts.

"No I don't want to take it over all by myself. And I don't want you to handle it all by yourself either. It's too much for both of us separately, or it would have been solved by now. But together we can probably conquer it. Will you work with me? Hopefully we can come up with an answer that has a part for me and a part for you in it," she suggests.

"Well I suppose, when you put it that way, that I could use the help. I haven't been getting very far on my own. Thanks," he concluded.

Now every dialog will not go this smoothly and there are probably an endless number of possibilities for problem solving this particular issue for this couple. However, what the new dialog does represent is that the couple is recognizing that their communication style needs to be respectful and specific in order for the other person to feel free of criticism.

They also recognize that they need to speak the other person's language. Men need to recognize that the wife is not always criticizing when she is asking to discuss the status of a problem. Men need to hear her questions as an attempt to understand the problem and a way to ask what she can do to help. On the other hand, women need to recognize that the husband will not understand you want to help if you just ask questions. She needs to actually offer concrete help, such as "Let me make those phone calls, while you do the measuring."

Even though working with your spouse can be a lot of work when it comes to navigating the communication pitfalls, you could look at the situation as an opportunity to fine tune your communication skills with all people, customers, employees and family members. The better you are at reading those subtle differences in style that can lead to tragedy or success, the more likely you are to be successful in all your communications in business.

Good communication and trust strengthen family and business

Friday, July 13, 2001

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

Many business owners are puzzled when their attorney or CPA suggests that they should meet with me before proceeding with signing a contract or structuring a reorganization or resolving a partnership disagreement. What's a psychologist have to do with business anyway? " I don't need a shrink," they say.

Yes, I get plenty of puzzled looks when I explain that I am a Psychologist and a Family/Business Consultant. But this makes a lot of sense when you take a look at a few basic facts. For example, half of American businesses are family owned and operated (and even more in the Northwest). Secondly, many of these businesses are run and staffed by family members who are not necessarily formally trained or educated for their specific job. They work for the business because they are trusted family members dedicated to the success of the family enterprise. Third, many of these businesses have been around two or three or four generations, which means that the children are growing up identifying themselves with the family business. What this means for many family firms is that the business is as much a part of the family and each family member as the family and each family member is a part of the business.

Recognizing that family/businesses are really families with a business identity, as a psychologist I am able to get beneath the surface of some business problems to identify the emotional snags that are hanging up a business decision. There is nothing more frustrating nor expensive than taking weeks and months to develop a new business strategy, only to have it sit there going nowhere because there is a family dispute. When Mom and Dad don't agree, or when Granpa doesn't approve of his successor, or when Daughter-in-law is at odds with Mother-in-law, or Son has a drug addiction problem, do you really think these things have no affect on the business? Yes many businesses continue to thrive for a while with serious problems like an alcoholic CEO, but what is the legacy for the next generation?

I believe it is very important to families in business to have the benefit of a psychologist's expertise when developing goals and resolving problems in their family enterprise. For example, I recently learned of an interesting study conducted in Oregon with troubled teens. The program results provide a valuable lesson for families in business too.

The program determined what mode of intervention works best in turning teens away from early school dropout and delinquency. The researchers compared several treatment groups. One group of teens attended a teen support group facilitated by a counselor. Another group of teens attended a teen support group, and also attended family therapy with their parents. Another group attended only family therapy. And a fourth group of teens only benefited by their parents attending a parent training class.

Over a five-year period, which group do you think made the most progress toward reducing delinquency and high school dropout among troubled teens? Interestingly the groups that were most successful were the parent training only and the family therapy group without a teen support group. When teens are allowed to socialize with other troubled teens, they just teach each other bad lessons. But when parents learn how to successfully parent and when teens work with their parents to resolve their problems, the whole family benefits.

There are two lessons here for families in business. First, whenever you are planning a new goal or you are stuck accomplishing a goal, the whole family needs to be involved in the solution. Secondly, the solution to any problem in any family, whether it be a business family or not, depends upon the parents or leadership. When the parents or leadership are strong and well educated about what works in a healthy family system, problems get addressed and solved sooner.

The teens in the above study were not elevated to the position of leadership in their families because they were part of solution discussions. But they were included in the discussions and learned problem-solving skills with their parents. A similar system works beautifully in successful family firms. Such firms have regular family business retreats where discussions ensue among stockholders and stakeholders alike. Open communication is an important key. But even more important is that open communication makes all family members feel like important contributors to the welfare of the family enterprise.

Many family firms want to have open communication. They want to resolve longstanding family/business disputes. They don't like walking on eggshells around certain family members or avoiding sensitive subjects. So why don't they get on with it? Why do their attorneys, CPAs and other business advisors have files filled with incomplete projects? Because in spite of good intentions, many of these family firms do not have the skills to address and resolve these problems. They need support and guidance by a psychologist who is trained in resolving problems within a family business system. They need education to learn these skills.

Not everyone is a natural born communicator. Not everyone knows how to "diagnose" family system problems. Not everyone has the courage to confront their family or a family member when love and dollars are at stake. It is no shame to be uneducated about these things. However it is a shame to let your embarrassment over your lack of education get in the way of seeking professional help. Remember a family business is first and foremost a family. Just as in the study of the troubled teens, if you strengthen the family, the individuals and the business will thrive.

Couples can balance dynamics of decision-making process

Thursday, November 23, 2000

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

Have you ever wondered why the symbol for "Justice" is a woman and she's blind to boot? Or another curiosity is that the statue in New York harbor, representing the United States of America is Lady Liberty. What is it that these female spirits represent? Why are women the symbol of our judicial system and the country as a whole? I think a partial answer may come from observing the growth of entrepreneurship among American women, both as solo entrepreneurs and as entrepreneurial couples.

Now that women are starting businesses in record numbers (i.e. three to five times the rate of men!) there are many more stories about startups that involve women entrepreneurs. Especially the Internet and telecommuting have opened an avalanche of opportunities for women. Women are also better educated than before and many are educated in traditionally male dominated fields such as business management, the sciences, and engineering. As a result we are gathering more and more information on how these women function as entrepreneurs and how they are different than men.

In spite of parity in education, equal access to financing and an Internet marketplace that doesn't impose gender restrictions, there are a few male/female traditions that hold. When the owner is female you may not see much difference in a company, either with the product or the revenue. However, the differences between male and female entrepreneurs become more apparent when a husband and wife equally own and operate a company. Management, decision-making, even operations are powerfully influenced by these style differences. This can be an asset, of course . . . the integration of a male perspective and a female perspective. But often a husband and wife get stuck because they do not recognize the dynamic that is going on.

One of the most interesting of these dynamics between a husband and a wife who are both entrepreneurs is how they make decisions. One way I sum it up is that men make the first best decision, but women seek out the best-best decision. In the fashion of Lady Justice (where the blindfold represents impartiality), women want to look at all sides of an issue before deciding anything. They value everyone's opinion in the process of moving toward a decision. They may have a strong opinion themselves, but like the blind Lady, they are willing to stay impartial until they have gathered enough information from others. Men on the other hand seek to move the organization along as swiftly as possible. Regardless of everyone's view, men tend to value the efficiency of getting to the answer quickly. If a man has an opinion, dialogue with others is not always to merely gather information, but to persuade others toward his point of view.

How does this dynamic work when a husband/wife team needs to make decisions together? If they understand each other well, then the decision-making dynamic is powerful. If they don't, then each party can feel very misunderstood. For example, if the wife is gathering information from her husband regarding some aspect of the business, then she may initiate a discussion with her husband. He often doesn't hear that she wants to discuss the subject. Rather he hears that she wants him to make a decision. Therefore he tells her his decision and considers the discussion completed. She leaves unfulfilled because she wants to toss ideas around before a decision is made. Later when the husband's decision is not carried out, the husband may feel frustrated because he thought a decision had been made. Sound familiar? It's because women tend to have discussions and men tend to go strait to decisions.

When a husband and wife work together there is the potential to create a strong leadership for their organization. When a husband recognizes that his wife needs an impartial discussion with a variety of options before deciding, she feels understood and more inclined to move toward decisive action.

When a wife recognizes that her husband has a need to get things done as efficiently as possible, she can refocus her energy onto solutions, even if she would like just a little more discussion.

Lady Liberty represents this principle of the combined talent and energy of an entrepreneurial couple. That is, a woman was chosen to represent America rather than a conquering male warrior, because of the desire to represent our country as welcoming immigrants (i.e. ". . . give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"). Lady liberty is carrying a torch in her hand, not a sword, symbolizing the enlightenment of democracy that shines out to the world. She holds the Declaration of Independence in the other hand as evidence that we are all created equal. On her ankle is a chain that is broken, representing freedom from oppression. Yet the statue is enormous, representing strong and powerful leadership and even domination in the world.

In other words, when making a business decision an entrepreneurial couple can combine the wife's strengths and the husband's strengths, and may just be what the business needs to keep its competitive edge in the marketplace. Just as Lady Liberty welcomes immigrants, the wife can welcome a variety of options and possible solutions to a problem, weighing those options impartially just as Lady Justice does. Lady Liberty also represents decision making in that she is holding the Declaration of Independence or the law of the land, just as the husband's strength is to get the decision made and follow it with action, as is implied by the sword that Lady Justice holds. In either case, whether it be the husband's or the wife's decision-making strategy, the goal is a fair decision, something both Ladies stand tall for.

To be sure many women entrepreneurs have the same decision-making qualities as men do. And there are male entrepreneurs who carefully weigh options before deciding. However, it is the interaction between men and women where you see the tendency to lean toward the more traditional roles. If you work with your spouse, you probably know what I am talking about. Now take this awareness and use it to the fullest to take your enterprise to a new height and enlighten the world with your success.

Beat divorce statistics: Communicate as mate, not business partner

Friday, July 07, 2000

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

I got a call this week from a journalist (Business Week) wanting information on entrepreneurial couples who face divorce. When journalists call for an interview I get a queasy feeling in my stomach. I'm not worried about a Sixty- Minutes-Expose where I'll say something so embarrassing that the whole nation will think I'm ignorant. My concern is that there are the inevitable questions about statistics. As we all know statistics are often about as confusing and useful as software manuals written by Korean engineers and translated into English.

It's not that I can't reel off statistics with the best of them. I am a researcher after all. I have graduate degrees . . . two of them! But when it comes to statistics about families in business, or entrepreneurial couples, the numbers are thin. The SBA does not keep statistics on these populations. The National Association for Women Business Owners reports on women-owned businesses, but not on couple-owned businesses. The most fascinating thing about this lack of information is that it is estimated that over half of the gross national product comes from family owned firms and half of American works in them! So where are the numbers?

To make matters worse this particular journalist wanted statistics on divorce rates among entrepreneurial couples. Further she wanted to know the statistics on those couples who get divorced and still choose to stay business partners. This is a pretty narrow segment of the population. As exasperating as these requests are for statistics (i.e., I get requests for such interviews about once a month) what this tells me is that there is a rapidly growing interest in the subject. Not just the media, but the public wants to know more about entrepreneurial couples . . . how they do it, how they survive it, how they prosper, how they keep love alive in the fast-paced cutthroat world of the national/international marketplace.

If you also want statistics, I will disappoint you too. I just don't know how many entrepreneurial couples out there get divorced or avoid divorce. However, I can confidently tell how to manage it either way.

First, if your marriage/business partnership has already disintegrated to the point of divorce and you really feel there is no turning back, seek the advice of a competent matrimonial attorney. Your business attorney cannot help you here. A marriage is unlike any other business contract you have entered. Most sophisticated business people are shocked to discover the entanglements created by being married and business partners. Your matrimonial lawyer will help with the marital and business division. But it will be costly and take more time than you could possibly conceive; certainly more time than it took to sign your marriage license at the courthouse.

But let's assume that things have not gone this far awry. In fact, let's assume that you two are happily married and the business is thriving and you would just like to prevent trouble. Simply, the best insurance against divorce is to attend to the relationship first, the business second. Sadly, the opposite seems to be what most entrepreneurial couples do. The pull of the business is strong, immediate and concrete. The pull of the marriage is strong too, but not as immediate and certainly fuzzy. Because it is easier to react and answer the phone call rather than remember to say something loving to one's spouse, the typical entrepreneur opts for responding to business needs first. But the truth is it is pretty simple to maintain a relationship and much more complicated to run a business, so it seems the average entrepreneur could work both into their hectic schedule.

Business is about competition and marriage is about love. In business the goal is to compete, to win, to make a profit. In marriage there is no goal, but rather a process . . . that of exchanging love. Being loving and receiving love are the basics of a healthy marriage. How much work is love anyway? How much effort is there in telling your spouse he or she is loved? How hard is it to carve out one night a month to go on a date? Is it such an extravagance to bring home flowers for your sweetheart or treat him or her to basketball tickets? Along with all of the other e-mails you respond to each day, would it take so much of your precious work time to send an e-mail of appreciation to your spouse too?

It's not that entrepreneurial couples don't have time for their loved ones. It's that the goal orientation of the business takes over. Always in the competitive mode from dawn to dusk, the entrepreneur ticks one item after another off of their daily agenda. Being loving is not on the list. Accomplishment is. In business the point of any conversation is the bottom line or the close. In a marriage the point of the conversation is rapport, staying emotionally connected with one another, or feeling loved. When there are not only one but two entrepreneurs in the marriage, such as with entrepreneurial couples, the focus can be so much on the business, and on the business mode of communication, that love is left in the dust as the couple races to out distance their competition and create financial independence. With this approach, however, they also risk total independence from each other as well. One day there may be statistics on the number of entrepreneurial couples who end their marriages. But if you don't want to be one of those divorce statistics then immediately implement this simple plan. Put the marriage first by doing one loving thing each day for your spouse. You can do battle and conquer all day long in the business world, but at the end of your day, switch modes and have a conversation about nothing at all with your spouse. Don't search for the bottom line. Don't anticipate the close. Instead hold her hand, look into his eyes, talk a little, and congratulate yourself on how lucky you are to have a business partner who is the love of your life.

Master the art of listening to overcome your communication problems

Sunday, July 02, 2000

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

One of the first things that most people ask a psychologist is for help communicating. Jimmy and Brent were no different. Jimmy wanted help developing a succession plan so that one day he could turn his profitable business over to his son Brent when Jimmy was ready to retire. Retirement was about ten years away so there was plenty of time to develop the plan and begin training the successor. The only problem was that the communication between father and son was atrocious.

Jimmy as a sole proprietor had run his business very successfully for many years. He had built it from the ground up with little help from anyone, bankers or friends. He and his wife raised their three children while growing the business. Two children were off working elsewhere and with no desire to come into the family business. Although they had worked summers and after school for Dad, they determined in college that their interests were elsewhere. The middle child Brent, however, worked steadily for Jimmy over the years. He never worked elsewhere in fact and was now identified as the successor.

The communication problems surfaced as the succession planning evolved. Brent had an employee mentality and seemed unaware that he needed to begin demonstrating leadership skills. Afterall, he had never had management responsibility until now, so was unaccustomed to it. In the course of training him to run the business Jimmy began turning over projects to Brent. However, Brent waited for guidance from Jimmy and never completed the projects. This infuriated Jimmy who lashed out at Brent. Brent withdrew and did even less work. Jimmy started making lists for Brent. And it went on like this until the two were thoroughly alienated.

To unscramble a communication mess like this it was necessary for Jimmy and Brent to begin listening to each other in a new way. Communication is more about listening than it is about talking. And communication is mostly about listening to the real meaning intended behind the words being spoken or written. For example, when my daughter Bianca was just three, she looked up at me with a very serious expression on her little face and said, "My neck is tight."

Three-year-olds have limited life experience and an even more limited expressive vocabulary. Taking this into consideration I wondered if she was trying to tell me something but was using words in a way unfamiliar to me. Further, she was coming to me with her problem, so she must have thought telling me this would be of some help to her or me. Third, I asked myself how it might feel if my neck were tight. Then the light bulb went off. I asked her if her neck was tight on the inside and she nodded an affirmative. So I explained that we called that feeling a "sore throat," and I gave her something to soothe the irritation.

There are a few simple tips you can begin practicing immediately to clear up communication problems you are having with your loved ones, employees, friends and business associates. First, listen for what the other person means not just what they are saying. Bianca was trying to tell me she had a sore throat and that she wanted help. Brent through his actions was demonstrating that he didn't understand what leadership means. Jimmy can't assume that Brent will catch on quickly if he has never had the opportunity to learn or practice this skill.

A second tip is to ask yourself "Why is he or she telling me this?" When people communicate they unconsciously and many times consciously identify a certain person to talk with. The person is chosen because the speaker needs a certain kind of feedback that they hope they will get from the person. My daughter Bianca chose to tell me about her sore throat because I am her mother and a person likely to care and to help her. Jimmy chose Brent to be his successor because they are father and son. Jimmy's impatience with his son is because he expects Brent to understand him better than others and because he is the heir to the business. Jimmy cares about his son, not just the business. He wants his son to succeed, so he pushes.

Third, assume that the person has a very good reason for telling you their story. It is often easy to dismiss another person when they don't make sense to you or perhaps are talking about something uninteresting. Often the only reason for talking is to connect with another person. If the other person is telling you something you already know, or sharing a tidbit of local gossip, or asking you questions about yourself, it is quite possible they are "just making conversation." But this is no small thing. There is nothing small about "small talk." It is a quick way to build rapport and trust between people. Often in our busy lives we skip the small talk and get on with the agenda.

Jimmy and Brent were more successful with their communication when they realized that at work they had seldom engaged in small talk. In the past, Brent had quickly learned to do his assignments and not interrupt his busy father. Thus when Jimmy began turning over important projects requiring more communication of an executive nature, Brent didn't know what to do. He expected his father to give him an assignment, not ask for his opinion. When the two started to talk as peers, to engage in chitchat, Brent began to understand that his opinions mattered. He began to engage in more creative thinking which eventually lead to developing his innate leadership abilities.

Communicating is an art. It is a complex never ending process that requires your attention. If you assume because you are in the same family, or because you work in the same industry, or because you are both native English speakers, that understanding each other is simple, you will create confusion over and over again. On the other hand, if you try these three tips . . . listening for the meaning, noticing why the speaker chose you, and accepting the meaningfulness of all communication no matter how small . . . not only will your communication effectiveness grow, but your relationships will improve too. Doesn't it feel good to be understood? Try giving that to others.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Family/Business Consultant is the author of ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black, 1998). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or Look for her new website especially for entrepreneurs