The family business is one of the oldest forms of business organizations, and in the United States, 19 percent of 28.8 million small businesses are family-owned. Although the challenges of succession and innovation prove to be too much for many such enterprises, family businesses often perform well and are viable options for many young professionals. As a career coach at a graduate business school, I regularly encounter students who are interested in entering a family venture, and if you happen to be one such student, here are five things to consider.
Understand the Dynamics
“One of the main considerations I had before making the choice to come to the family business was if I was ready to live the family dynamic every day at work,” says Juna Gates, brand manager at Feathered Friends, a premium down goods manufacturer. A good professional advice to follow is to leave personal issues at home so that they do not influence your performance in your job. With family firms, however, it is harder -- if not impossible -- to leave the personal at home since the personal is part of the business. “No matter what happens at work, it's always going to be your family -- you can't easily separate work from family like you could at another job,” adds Gates. How we communicate with family members differs from how we communicate with our colleagues, and when our colleagues are also family members, conflicts may arise and communication can be affected. Ultimately, breakdown in communication among family members can negatively impact a family business.
As you consider joining the family firm, explore the current family dynamics. Having a boss you disagree with fills your work life with stress; having a boss you disagree with who also happens to be a family member -- a parent, a sibling or a spouse -- ensures that the stress spills into your personal life. Before choosing the family business as an option, think about your relationship with the family member currently running the business. If you are not quite on good terms, joining them in a professional capacity will not make things better. In fact, it will probably make things worse. And a bad relationship won’t just impact your experience at the company; it may eventually bring down the company.
Gain Outside Experience First
A common issue that plagues family businesses is the perception of hiring family members for being family members, not necessarily for being qualified candidates. Completing a relevant degree and establishing yourself as a professional outside the family business will help you be regarded as a trusted, respected and qualified employee when you decide to join the venture. In fact, in its 2019 US Family Business Survey, PwC found that 62 percent of family businesses expect incoming family members to gain outside experience first.
“It's okay to do your own thing before entering the family business,” advises Gates. “Although I worked at the family business growing up, I never thought I'd join the business as an adult. I studied something completely different in college, went to law school and had a separate career before coming back to the business.” Gaining outside experience will give you the opportunity to establish yourself as the professional you want the family and other employees to see. It allows you to explore where you fit best so that when you decide to become a contributing member, you know exactly what value you can bring and how best to do so. You would also gain skills and perspectives that would be hard to consider if you regard the business only from the family viewpoint. “Gaining skills and experience from other jobs will ultimately help infuse the business with new ideas and prepare you to be a leader in your own right,” Gates adds.
Ensure You Have the Right Motivation
Many students who end up entering a family firm upon graduation have not really thought about it at all. They have known it as their only choice from a young age and haven’t bothered exploring other options. To embark on a career path without being honest about your motivation could result in a lifetime of regret. Motivation is key for performing well in a meaningful role, which is why it is something employers evaluate when hiring candidates. For the same reason, you want to consider your goals before entering the family business. What motivates you to join the family firm and what are your aspirations?
“It wasn't until my parents were exploring selling the business that I realized how much I valued keeping it in the family,” shares Gates. If the family business aligns with your values, abilities and goals, your contributions will be more meaningful and you will have higher job satisfaction. Although family businesses earn higher trust levels among customers and outside employees, the other side is that without that trust, the business can quickly crumble. When you enter a business because it is the only thing you know -- or even worse, because you think it’s the easiest thing to do -- that could negatively impact morale among non-family employees. When you enter the family business having shown commitment to gaining the right education and experience and highlighting your genuine dedication to its success and growth, others will be energized and positively impacted.
Clarify the Value You Can Bring
Once you have established that you have the right motivation to enter the family business, it is helpful to clarify how you plan to contribute value. Evaluating your previous experience and education and studying the business’s strategic goals and expectations for growth, what do you see as a need and what do you have that can help meet that need? Although you may have your own ideas, remember to first “listen to the family members and employees who have worked at the business for a long time,” advises Gates. “They'll have a lot to teach you, and especially at the beginning, your job is partly to absorb their knowledge, no matter what great ideas you have for the future of the business.” You need to understand the current state of the company in order to successfully strategize for its future and contribute to its longevity.
Know Your Exit Options
What is your vision for your professional growth and development? As with any career choice, you want to consider the possibility that you may eventually decide to leave the family business and design your own path. That may be an easier choice to make with some enterprises than others. If the current leader has identified you as a likely successor, you want to make sure you are committed to taking over and ensuring future success. Lack of a robust succession plan represents the biggest problem family businesses face, so entering a family business as a young professional needs to be a well thought-out decision. Even if you are not the successor and have no desire to be one, leaving a family business without proper communication ahead of time may lead to emotional fallout with other family members.