JOINING THE FAMILY BUSINESS?
family business consultant Paul Karofsky provides some sound advise for
owners thinking of bringing aboard family members.
Mother: Jon, we've given this lots of thought, and your
Dad and I are really hoping that you'll join your sister, Jackie, and us in
the family business.
Father: This is one of my greatest dreams come true! And
I'm sure you're as excited as I was when I joined my parents. So, what do you
Son: Well, I can't say that I'm too surprised. I did work
in the store summers and school vacations just like Jackie did, and now my
college graduation is only a few months away. I, uh, guess it makes sense.
It's sort of what I always expected, too. It's just that I've got, well, some
concerns, and I guess I'd like to think about it some more...
So, Jon begins to reflect: "Looks like the real world
is closing in fast. They probably want me to start right after graduation. No
summer vacation? What will my job be? What kind of hours? Week-ends, too? But
my friends are so important to me. Will I have to blow them off? What kind of
money will I
make? And who's going to be my boss?"
And, as Jon thinks a bit further... "They've all
given this a lot of thought. That means they have some 'expectations' of me.
I wonder what they are. And how does my sister feel? What does she expect?
What does the future look like? Is this going to be our business some day? My
dad says this is 'one of his greatest dreams.' That makes me feel wanted,
alright, but it also puts pressure on me, like I'd be letting him down if I
said 'no.' But why am I even questioning all this? It's kind of like I've
been doing it all my life. It's the only job I know, the only one I've ever
had. I guess it's okay. Maybe I've just got some normal jitters. But I sure
wish there were someone I could talk to."
Recognizing Jon's situation, perhaps we can help him sort
out three main concerns: first, whether or not to join the family business;
second, how best to enter the family business; and third, a look at the
longer term future.
1. To join or not to join...
We need to let Jon know that he is not alone. There are
thousands of young adults out there right now, whom the "real
world" will indeed welcome very soon. It is okay for Jon to be unsure and
have some second doubts. A career choice is a major, long term commitment.
"Growing up" on the one hand, may
mean job, car, apartment, and independence. But it also
means "the end of being a kid," less free time, work on week-ends,
insurance bills, rent payments, and separation from parents. Jon's instincts
are correct. He does need time to reflect a bit, to assess his own skills,
examine his career and
personal goals, family relationships and communication
styles, and explore other options.
Jon might want to clarify any unstated "expectations"
with other family members to avoid ambiguity and inappropriate assumptions so
roles and responsibilities for all family members in the business are clear.
Jon and his dad need to talk about his dad's experience in
joining his parents a generation ago. While Jon may decide to join the family
business, he surely does not want to build a career out of guilt for fear of letting
his dad down.
Jon might also explore with his sister, Jackie, what it
was like for her when she came into the family business and how she feels now
about his coming in. Jon could ask Jackie for her advice and share with her
some of his concerns. Maybe there are other young people in business with
their families with whom Jon could speak. Participation in local trade associations
provides a natural networking and support opportunity for young recruits.
2. Once a decision to enter the family business has been
If Jon has not already done so, we encourage him to spend
at least a couple of years working elsewhere before joining the family
business. This will give him the much needed chance to make some mistakes in
a more objective setting, earn some promotions and report to different
bosses. He will then be able to bring even greater knowledge, experience and
a personal sense of achievement into the family firm.
When Jon does enter the family business, we encourage him
to expect a "competitive salary," one that would be paid to a
non-family employee performing in a similar capacity. Why? Because less is
unfair and more, too soon in his career, would give Jon golden handcuffs. It
could tie him to a job he might neither like nor be suited for, but could not
afford to leave.
When it comes to a boss, we encourage Jon to report to
someone other than a family member for a while. This will help provide him
with more objective feedback and evaluation. It will also help distance the
'family emotions' from the 'business criticism.'
3. And about the longer range future...
Though Jon's parents may not have all their estate,
business ownership transfer and leadership succession plans in perfect order,
it is not unusual for young adults to be wondering what their parents have in
mind. It is also very difficult for children to raise such questions to their
parents because of the obvious implications of their deaths. Family business
meetings and references to articles like this can serve vehicles for raising
such topics for discussion.
An instant transition from kid to adult, from student to
working person, from son to employee is tough enough to contemplate, let
alone execute. Jon will need lots of support and conversation with his family
and friends to help make the transition a smooth one. Many things can be done
to excess. But in a family business, "communication" does not seem
to be one of them!
Paul I. Karofsky, Ed.M., was president and CEO of his
family's wallcovering distribution business which he sold in 1988. He then
completed graduate studies at Harvard University doing research on family
communication styles. He is now Executive Director of the Northeastern
University Center for Family Business in Dedham, Massachusetts and a resource
to family businesses. He can be reached at 781-320-8015.