Thriving in a Family Business

It’s officially been one year since I began working for my in-laws’ Property Management business. Before starting this venture, I was warned by many friends and family about the dangerous territory I was about to enter. My situation was a bit more intense in the fact that it also required my husband and I to move away from my friends and family, in order to be closer to his parent’s business. That move alone was a sacrifice in and of itself, yet I had no idea how much more was about to come my way by entering into a family run business. Although I will be touching on the lessons I learned working for my in-laws, these points are universal for any job for anyone. The difference is, I have noticed, that by working for someone else one may not have to confront issues as quickly as is necessary in a family business. In a family business it is absolutely always necessary to maintain a healthy relationship at all costs; whereas working for someone else, a grudge or issue can be carried on unresolved for much longer without immediate consequence (such as an awkward family gathering where tension has seeped over from the business and your Family dinner – yikes!)

To avoid such negative situations, I’ve had to develop certain skills and discover for myself certain boundaries that I had not been forced to implement in previous careers. One of the biggest skills to thriving in a family business, but truly in any business, is good communication. This may seem simple, but in certain situations communication can actually be very complex, laborious, and emotionally draining. Nonetheless, good communication is always the solution.

The biggest thing that must be explicitly communicated and fully understood by all parties is first and foremost what your job description is. This was something that was not fully understood when I first began my journey in the family business, and boy were there some repercussions because of this. Not only did this cause frustration for myself (not knowing what my place was in the company), my mother-in-law/direct boss (not receiving the results from me that she expected), but also my co-workers (suspicious of what effect I may soon be having on their job positions). Eventually we worked through this snafu to put everyone at ease, and it became more clear on what my role in the company was going to be. However, like anything in life, nothing lasts for ever.

As I began to gain more experience, as we took the company different directions with new updates, and with the change of employees it became clear that conversations would need to be continually had. Overtime, I learned how best to approach my mother-in-law in these matters. I found that requesting one-on-one meetings that we could schedule in advance, was the best way to get the results I was looking for. I’ve found this to be true for any job. Although it may seem intimidating setting up a meeting with a superior, versus casually interrupting them to ask your question during a regular day, it is more appropriate to communicate an issue this way. Furthermore, even though emailing may seem like a handy tool, it also does not give you the chance to clarify or learn more about an issue you may be struggling with. There is also a lot said in tone and body language, that can be especially important to utilize when having difficult conversations, and clearly this does not get portrayed in emailing.

Lastly, you must have humility in your conversations. Nothing will set off another person more than having someone demand from them, demean them, or criticize them even if you think you are right. Being that I was having to communicate with my mother-in-law, I have always had to choose my words very carefully. Even though I have had moments where I wanted to burst out and say exactly what was on my mind, tactfulness and respect are more important. There is no reason you should not be able to get your point across and still be able to remain kind and considerate. A trick I use when I cannot think of a kind way to point out an issue, is to ask a question instead of making a statement.

For example, let’s say you think something that your boss is having you do is unfair because it is out of your scope, you don’t have time, etc.. Instead of telling your boss directly what you don’t agree with, come into the conversation with the humility to learn from them. Instead of confrontation, ask a question, “Currently I have the task of … I am finding it difficult to complete this task because … is taking up most of my time, what suggestions do you have for me?”. This approach opens up the conversation for your boss to either determine that you shouldn’t be doing that task or they can mentor you on how it is possible for you to get it done. Furthermore, their response that they give to you, should give you an idea of the character they have. Which also may help you determine whether or not working for that person is worth it or not.

Which brings me to my next point: You can quit! I am realizing this concept of quitting a job is something that millennials have an easier time with then the generations before us. I think it is always important to remember that your job is not worth the expense of your family, life, and dreams/goals you have outside of your job. You can find another job – But you only have one life. Trust me, I don’t think there is any excuse good enough to stay in a miserable job. If you’re still in denial about this, ask someone outside of your situation and I know they would be able to help shed some light on the actual truth – there is no good reason to stay. Even if it is family you are working for, there are ways that you can respectfully step down or step back. Especially because you are dealing with family, they of all people should be understanding that you need to do what is best for you: if they can’t, then there are dysfunctional family dynamics at play that you may be better off stepping away from anyway. This is something I have kept in my back pocket this entire time: the knowledge that I do not need to do this job. This isn’t saying that I want to throw in the towel as soon as things get difficult. However, this is saying that the health of my relationship with my-laws will always take precedence over working for my in-laws.

Lastly, my final point: Separation of work and family. Now of course we still talk about stories from the office or funny client situations. We also talk about future growth and dreams we have. These are all healthy conversations that bring us together and make for great table talk during a family dinner. However, carrying negative emotions or frustrations from the day, into family activities outside of work is never okay. This goes for anyone who has had a bad day at the office: leave it at the office. I once heard this story called, The Trouble Tree and the message behind it really stuck with me:

The carpenter I hired to help me restore an old farmhouse had just finished a rough first day on the job. A flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit, and now his ancient pickup truck refused to start. While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence.

On arriving, he invited me in to meet his family. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands. When opening the door he underwent an amazing transformation. His tanned face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.

Afterward he walked me to the car. We passed the tree and my curiosity got the better of me. I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier.

“Oh, that’s my trouble tree,” he replied.” I know I can’t help having troubles on the job, but one thing’s for sure, troubles don’t belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning I pick them up again.”

He paused. “Funny thing is,” he smiled, “when I come out in the morning to pick ’em up, there ain’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.”

I think this story is such a great reminder that a job is not the entirety of your life. There is so much more happening outside of your nine to five shift, that is much more worth being present and joyful for. Tomorrow is always a new day to solve troubles from the day before, and usually tomorrow helps you realize those troubles are not so bad after all. Long story short, leave your troubles at work, don’t take them home.

I hope these points give you some perspective as you tackle a family business yourself, or any job for that matter. I wish for you a kind boss who will give you the respect I hope you are giving to them. Lastly, I hope you always remember your life is more than your job, and ultimately it’s your relationships that deserve your devotion – not your career. Stay strong and communicate, find a new job if you have to, and family should always be your number one priority!



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