Thankful For Your Family…. Business?


As we approach Thanksgiving, one thing we are often most thankful for is our family. But when it comes to a family business… well, it’s a little more complicated. Landscaping businesses easily lend themselves to family endeavors and while it can combine the best of both worlds (personal and professional), it isn’t always smooth sailing. According to many statistics, a family businesses’ survival declines with each handoff to the next generation. What causes the drop off? Among the myriad of reasons: times change; dedication levels vary; and talent isn’t always genetic.

If you’re in a family business, do any of the following sound familiar?

Granddad toiled day and night. He adored his work and never stopped having new ideas. Most of his creations met with success. He just had a knack for knowing what the public wanted. My uncle, on the other hand, has practically run the place into the ground. Unfortunately, almost everything he dreams up is a dud.

“This place has an us-versus-them feel. If you’re family, you get away with murder. If you’re not, the rules are the rules. The culture shifted when Jenny married Greg, and he started working here. I’ve dedicated years to this company, and it breaks my heart to see an entitled spouse practically ruin it. You think Jenny would know better.”

“Mother has always had us on a path to take over the reins. My brother and I know the business inside out. But as the years go by, I see my options slipping away. I’m only 23. Maybe I’ll get the courage before the end of the season to tell my parents I’m going to law school.”

Family dysfunction or disagreements are no picnic—but it’s even worse when people’s livelihoods are at stake. The longer issues go unchecked, often the more severe they become. But it’s almost never too late to confront a problem. Here are some family business issues and what to do about them.

  1. Symptom: Lack Of Leadership. The family members currently in charge are running the business as usual, but not innovating. Such status quo will lead to a “going-out-of-business” sign on the door.
    Correction Strategy: Not everyone is a leader or has the creative spark to carry the torch when a dynamic owner steps down. Fortunately, nothing mandates that a company “homegrow” its top talent. If you or other family members aren’t suited (or interested) in the top spot, hire it out. You won’t look weak, you won’t have to give up control of your legacy, and you’ll look smart and humble as you position your organization for future success. Nervous about an outsider? There are many ways to get a fit right. Be specific about what you’re looking for, focus on culture, and find someone who is good at the parts of the business where you don’t excel.
  2. Symptom: Inequality. The rules don’t apply to everyone the same way. Blood relatives and/or their spouses take advantage of family membership, and it’s negatively impacting culture, morale, and attitudes.
    Correction Strategy: Addressing this requires some tough love and may hurt feelings. When deciding to address the problem, have data ready, and come prepared with plenty of examples. Obviously, this conversation is easier if you have power. When you don’t, your approach may need some adjustment. One factor is almost certain; this behavior will not self-correct. At some point, you’re going to have to confront it.
  3. Symptom: Inconsistency. Some of the family work on vacation and others simply vacation at work.Vacation
    Correction Strategy: Start by making rules and goals visible and measurable. State the obvious to ensure everyone knows what’s expected. Then, review goals and any rule violations regularly. Sometimes additional structure and spotlight can go a long way toward correcting an imbalance. Of course, if that doesn’t work, it may be time to talk about a pay-for-performance structure, a split of some sort, or even a buyout. When tackling this challenge, you need to consider your interactions outside the business. Do you still want to have Thanksgiving with these people? Regardless of your answer, the greater picture should inform your decisions.
  4. Symptom: Entitlement. The kids want to join the business but see it more as a meal ticket than a career move.
    Correction Strategy: Many families that have successfully passed stewardship of their enterprise from one generation to the next know the value of putting family to work outside the business before they earn a spot on the inside. While nothing is wrong with a short summer stint or afterschool job at the family business, if younger family members haven’t already started as a full-time employee, consider creating an outside work requirement. If you adopt this strategy, not only will you get an employee who has had to earn a paycheck without the cache of the family name, you will have someone who has seen something different that your way of doing business.
  5. Symptom: Disinterest: The next generation has little to no interest in the business.
    Correction Strategy: Sometimes it’s best to hear “no” the first time. After all, do you care more about the business or your children having the opportunity to pursue their professional passions and goals? Yes, it’s sad when a legacy ends after many generations, but it’s sadder still when forced participation ruins something beyond the business. The bottom line: if your offspring want to jump ship, hear the message, and throw them a life raft.

If you’ve encountered a problem in the family business, you know firsthand that knots rarely untie themselves. In fact, many get tighter and bigger as time goes by. So, if you’re dealing with one of the dysfunctions described above or something else, now’s the time to start planning a correction strategy and setting a timetable to execute

Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised.

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Vacation Photo: iStock