Avoiding the “Family Box”

by Chris Eckrich & Steve McClure

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Chris Eckrich
Chris Eckrich
Steve McClure
Steve McClure

The November article is titled, Building the Best Team Possible: Relationships between Family and Non-Family Employees.  Just as important are the relationships between non-family employees and family members who do not work in the company.  Recently, we heard the following comment from family shareholder about the non-family management team.

“I feel like they want me to just be a figurehead, like the face in the black framed motivational picture with the bold print; Inheritor.  Our professional managers show polite interest in my suggestions about the business, and will point out a little too directly for my comfort; your family hired us to manage.  I feel like they want me to stay in a box; the family box.”

InheritorsIt is not hard to understand non-family management wanting to keep the family in a box, if there has been a history of meddling or politics in the business resulting from family disputes.  If they feel family dynamics are playing out too much, is easier just to concentrate on “business” and do everything possible to make sure “family” is handled elsewhere.  Yet, what about the family shareholder who wants to make a valued and appropriate contribution and is just a little awkward and inexperienced about it?

Family shareholders need to learn all they can about how to exert their influence on a business in an appropriate way… and it is the responsibility of a family to teach its members.  Even so, those who are new to it will understandably make mistakes.   We find it is a two-way street.  The family will benefit greatly from non-family managers who are interested, are willing to learn and engage the family to maximize the family’s contribution to the business.  If they expect the family to know how best to be an active family shareholder, and resort to only telling them how they are getting it wrong, a contest will develop.

If both management and the family are earnestly working toward maximizing the competitive advantage of family ownership by adopting an open to learning, trial and error approach, they will invent procedures for communication and interaction that will fit their unique needs.  There’s not one way to do it; visits from senior non-family managers to the Family Council may work for one family, and be completely inappropriate for another.  Accepting that mistakes are okay, and that constructive feedback is okay too, the family shareholders and management will evolve and get it right.  By working together, they can keep “family influence” alive in the business, even if the family is not in the management ranks.

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