The family business is a powerful aspirational trope across the world. In many ways it is the foundation stone for trade: families generate tradition which in turn generates trade, from whence economies, GDP and green shield stamps are borne.
The ‘family’ though has become a bit of a problematic concept: the wholesome, glowing Walton family, the extended Forsyth family and the 28 generations of your DNA who all live in a vault under your staircase have all been superseded by the atomised, fragmented and disrupted family of individuals who stare at each other via the lens of the TVs in their front room and wonder who they’re sitting beside tonight.
The family business suffers as a result: Smith and Sons (or Daughters) is no longer the destination career of Smith Junior who would much rather be something in coding, rather than join his dad or mum slaving away on a hot butchers counter in a supermarket.
The family business is as much at risk as the family itself but that may not be such a bad thing.
These days it’s led to the generation of the business family; a gang of individuals who gather around an inspirational entrepreneur to help bring their idea to sparkling economic life. This is great as long as the individuals know their role in the family and can play them out with conviction.
The problems can set in as the metaphor takes too tough a grip: families imply heirarchies and rebellion, seething discord as well as love, peace and harmony which is in as short a supply in family businesses as much as it is in families.
If you’re finding yourself at the centre of a business in which you’re the centre of other people’s attentions then be careful your business doesn’t start to resemble the Nightmare Family Next Door complete with a portfolio of ASBOs and CPOs against its light fingered youngsters. Here are some tips on how to make sure your business family runs more like the Addams Family than a gang of crazed Fockers.
As soon as you can, give your new family members a function which you can hold them to. Be quite specific about what it is and build in times to assess whether they’re achieving that function. Calling someone president of global strategy doesn’t quite cut it and will lead to tears before bed time.
Agree to keep your family’s dirty laundry indoors. Conflict and disputes are all part of running a business and your business family need to understand that if the youngest son goes round whining I hate you in public everytime he doesn’t get his own way, this is not good for your businesses public relations.
You might be a business family but this doesn’t make you the parents of your colleagues. People bring all kinds of emotional baggage into a business start up and if you explicitly insist on lording it over them in a paternalistic demonstration of authority you risk the kids kicking against you sooner or later. You’re not in loco parentis but as the guiding entrepreneur of your business you do have the responsibility to treat everyone as an adult and insist on being treated as one yourself.
And finally, take time to enjoy your new found family. This is the one of the few times in your life when, contrary to public perception, you can choose your family rather than having them foisted on you so make sure you chose carefully, nurture them well and make sure you’ve got the keys to the wine cabinet under your control. Likewise the company credit card. That way you’ll be able to avoid your indignant offspring adopting the old Philip Larkin mantra:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.