When Family Isn’t The Answer

Tips For Non-Family Executives In A Family Business

Editor’s Note: Part I of this article, which deals with tips for the family business owner, can be read by clicking here. Part II begins below.

Make sure you understand the family’s purpose for the business.
Ask a lot of questions of the family business leaders, family owners and employees. Find out what kind of results and behaviors are rewarded and which ones are frowned upon. Do not assume that the only purpose of the business is to make money and increase shareholder value. Family businesses are often driven by the personal passion and interests of a family business founder, and the purpose of the business is frequently much deeper than just making money. Make sure that the family’s purpose for the business is one you believe in—one that truly inspires you. If it doesn’t, don’t take the job.

Use that purpose as a competitive advantage for the business.
How many business books have you read that advise creating a purpose for the business that transcends making money? And how tough is that for publicly held businesses with the tremendous pressure they often face to produce ever higher quarterly financial results? Having a purpose that inspires employees, customers and owners allows you to create a strategic business plan that people buy into—and that increases the chances of attractive financial returns over time. At Biltmore, we make money to preserve this magnificent property, rather than looking at it the other way around. The fortunate irony is that the better job we do achieving our preservation mission, the more financially successful our business becomes.

Understand the implications for your career.
Understand that there may be glass ceilings in a family business:  The family may reserve the top leadership for family members only. Make sure you understand what the family’s perspective is on that issue. If there is a glass ceiling, is that OK with you? If it is, then remember to check your ego at the door every day.

Recognize that your chances for real responsibility, accountability and achievement may be greater in a small or medium size family business than it might be in a large bureaucracy. Large publicly held companies have many bright and talented people who get stuck in middle management positions—responsible for carrying out strategy but having little authority to create it. This is not true for every family business though, so make sure the one you are thinking about working for provides the opportunity for achievement you desire.

Take responsibility for your own training and development. Many smaller family businesses do not have the same kind of comprehensive training programs as larger publicly held businesses, so stay current with your technical knowledge and leadership skills by creating your own development plan. Ask the family owners to fund all or most of your training and development and to give you the time necessary to accomplish it. If your request is reasonable and the family owners say no, you are probably working for the wrong family business.

Take advantage of opportunities to become active in significant community and trade association activities that are important to you and the family business for which you work. Many successful family business owners are highly committed to their communities and want to give back to them. Helping your community and your industry improve can provide you with a tremendous sense of meaning and purpose and provides excellent networking opportunities.

Love the business as if it were your own, but never forget that it’s not.
By all means, think as much as you can like an owner. Love the business, the customers, the employees, the family owners, the mission and your achievements. But recognize that owners have the right to use the assets of the company in any way they desire—and they have the right and responsibility to make the final decision on important issues. You have neither of those rights. Non-family executives who forget those fundamentals can destroy their own careers and reputations—ones that took years to build.

Communication is Key
For family owners and non-family executives alike, to really make it work, you must communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk about everything, particularly those things that are or could be sources of conflict—and always with respect. If it is something that makes you feel uncomfortable, that is probably a sign that you need to talk about it, and the sooner the better. Make sure your core values match up. If they don’t, the partnership you need and want probably won’t work. Respect each other and the unique talents and perspectives each person involved in leading a family business brings to the table. And enjoy the ride. A healthy family business can provide a lifetime of fulfillment and rewards for family owners and non-family executives that few other organizations can match.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
 Stephen Miller Meet the Author
Stephen P. Miller is executive vice president at The Biltmore Company in Asheville, North Carolina, which owns and operates Biltmore Estate and several related businesses. He can be found on the Web at www.biltmore.com.