A great many Leading Thoughts readers have asked about how to wisely navigate having family members working in the same firm. So let me tackle this sometimes troubling subject.
Leaders of our generation grew up watching television shows like Bonanza or The Big Valley or, more recently, Blue Bloods. These were dramas with family members working in the same professions and sometimes even working in the same organizations. It all looks attractive on TV. It’s much harder in real life.
We want it to work, though. It seems like the way it should be. One generation builds something successful. The next generation takes it further and before long there are three, perhaps even four generations generating wealth, doing good in the world, and passing a legacy down through the years. It just seems right, even biblical. It feels like part of the meaning of life.
It can be, but only if you keep some truths in mind.
First, many family firms fail because a family member is put in charge before he or she is ready. This brings us to one of the great truths of family businesses. The young must be trained and developed by non-family members. Family members are too enmeshed, too merciful, too emotionally involved. If my son should one day work for me, it will be someone else who trains him and certifies that he is ready. I wouldn’t be objective. I would probably be too merciful and couldn’t make the required demands that would lead to success. I’ll entrust this task to another leader whose integrity I would bet my life on.
Second, family members have to start at the bottom and be allowed to rise on their own gifts. I know a Texas ranching operation in which the owner’s oldest son did every nasty task required, did it better than most, and eventually took the lead all while holding everyone’s respect. Why? Because he skipped no steps. Instead, he fell in the manure and got kicked by that horse and once screwed up the branding and made a mistake in that one sale. He learned. He toughened. He got better. He rose. Now, he’s better than his founder/father and respected by everyone. Yet it wasn’t easy for family members who loved him to see him fail and bleed. He had to, though. It was all the cost of his and the company’s coming success.
Third, not everyone in a family is called to the family business. There is almost always an outlier and this doesn’t necessarily spring from rebellion or resentment or spite. It is simply how people are made. In my family, my brother works in the gas products industry and my sister works in medicine. My father was a military officer. They all work or worked in technical fields. I’m the outlier. I work in the liberal arts—history, language, public policy, international affairs. I’m the odd one out, but it isn’t because I resent anyone. It is my calling. And if my family business was medicine and dozens of my family members were doctors, or nurses, or pharmacists, I would still be wired as I am, doing what I am. So, even when there is a family business, leave room for the outlier. They are always present and it is a good thing, a credit to a family’s health, breadth, and love.
Fourth, and finally, God gives us multigenerational family businesses so we can do good in the world over time. Enjoy your work and prosper, but be sure to use your wealth to invest in the lives of others. You’ve been given a sacred trust.
One more thing. Not everyone is called to have a family business. I can tell you from my own experience that there is great joy in sitting down at Thanksgiving with a family representing a dozen fascinating career fields yet none of them working in the same field. It is God’s doing, just as is my friend’s family company. The art is in the love, the encouragement, the culture of success, and doing good in the world.