Is the Family Business Right for Me?
Five critical questions will help young adults decide whether to join the business…and to discover their own voice.
By Katherine Grady, Ph.D. in Family Business Magazine
People growing up in the shadow of a family business continually live with the spoken and unspoken questions about whether or not they will join the company. To these young adults, the company seemingly offers a secure future with distinct privileges and advantages. But at the same time, the opportunity complicates their quest for self-definition and a separate identity.
All young adults must wrestle with the process of separating from their families and finding their initial place in the adult world. Typically, these young people seek psychological and often physical distance from their families to do this important developmental work. Individuals in the complex interdependent world of a family business often need an extra measure of reflection in making their early career decisions. They need to ask themselves the right questions, and take time to reflect on the answers.
I have worked with many young adults who have successfully negotiated this path. For some, “success” meant deciding to enter the family business; for others, it meant striking out on their own. Too often, however, I have worked with family members later in their careers who did not address these issues and made poor choices that ended up being unfortunate for themselves, their families, and the company. In coaching young family members, I have found that helping them answer five critical questions deepens their understanding of the unique pressures they face, increases their awareness of possibly conflicting motivations, and helps them make career decisions with greater clarity and confidence.
To illustrate why it is important for potential successors to examine and answer these questions, I will use the case of Rick and Ed Danvers, a composite of many families I have coached. Rick’s father, Ed Danvers, had asked him to come into the family’s privately held company on the East Coast, Danvers Construction. In Ed’s eyes, what he was offering his son was the chance of a lifetime. For Rick, it was a promising opportunity strewn with landmines threatening his personal and career development, not the least of which was his complicated relationship with his powerful father.
I’ll take up each of the five fundamental questions in describing how Rick made his decision on his father’s offer. To understand his process, let me provide a brief history.
Ed Danvers built a prosperous construction business during tough economic times. He was well liked and respected within the industry as well as his community, but he was more difficult at home. With his wife, Sara, and only son, Rick, he could be ebullient and engaging, but more often, he was moody and preoccupied. His wife understood him and gave him the space he needed to do the work he loved. Rick, however, was often confused by his father’s alternating moods, at times being drawn into his warm, enthusiastic style, and at other times distancing himself from his father’s moodiness.
Rick entered high school in the mid-1980s. Despite being fiercely competitive in team sports and quietly popular, Rick often felt that he didn’t quite fit in at school and was somewhat distant from his classmates. After graduating, he entered the large state university with a half-formed idea of studying business, but he did not enjoy his studies and always questioned why he was in school. He left after two years to work for his father’s company. Ed Danvers, with an eye to Rick’s possible future in the company, wanted him to learn the business from the bottom up and started him working at different construction sites. Rick worked hard and earned the respect of the other men, eventually rising to site foreman. Despite his success, though, he just wasn’t sure he wanted to work for his father for the rest of his life.
After a few years and many heated arguments with his father, Rick took a good position with a construction company on the West Coast. After several years on one large project he was given the chance to help with new-site development, a position at which he excelled. Then he met Sandy, the first woman he could ever imagine marrying. When he finally asked her she happily accepted, and they began planning a future together. It was during this time that Rick began to seriously consider his career from a long-range perspective.
Ed Danvers’s heart attack in 1997 was a shock to everyone in the family and business; it forced Rick to decide his next step. While recovering from bypass surgery, Ed began thinking in earnest about the future of his family and his company. He wasn’t sure whether his son would have what it takes to run the business, but he wanted to find out. He offered Rick a good management position and let him know that he might have the opportunity to take over one day. Rick was surprised and not sure what to do. Remembering his father’s difficult moods and their early conflicts in the business, he pondered the offer for several weeks while keeping a wary eye on his father’s reactions.
Ed interpreted his grown son’s delay as evidence of his earlier career indecision and began to wonder whether his offer was wise. Ed’s reaction only further reinforced Rick’s caution, and they eventually became deadlocked—Rick, quiet and withdrawn, and Ed, angry and moody. Although cooperation would have served their best interests, both were having difficulty breaking out of their familiar pattern.
Fortunately at this point, they both broke step and made the important decision to seek consultation. The adviser’s first objective was to help them see that they were caught in an old pattern of relating and that there were alternatives. Then, Ed was encouraged to understand that Rick, rather than being indecisive, required room to weigh the pros and cons of this offer, consider alternative routes, and think about a decision that would alter the rest of his life. Ed agreed to give Rick the space he needed. Then, Rick began to address the following five questions.
1. AM I LISTENING TO MY OWN VOICE?
The first challenge faced by successors such as Rick Danvers is to separate their own voice from the chorus of voices that make up a family business. Sorting out one’s own voice is like trying to hear someone talk at a crowded cocktail party with loud music; you need to step out on a quiet porch to hear what is being said. Young adults often have difficulty exploring their own values, ideas, and personal dreams. These explorations can affect many others, sometimes the whole family, and are therefore often not encouraged. For example, choosing a career outside of the company may mean shattering a parent’s dream for a family business that is passed to the next generation. It is difficult to identify one’s true inclinations when that choice could affect the whole family’s future. Leaving home for college or work often gives young adults an opportunity to begin exploring possibilities and exercising individual choices.
Finding an “objective ear” can be enormously helpful; a close friend, mentor, teacher, or professional adviser can assist the young person in sorting out conflicting thoughts, feelings, and agendas. Other strategies, such as keeping a journal or networking with others facing similar dilemmas, can also be helpful. All young people must commit time to structured periods for reflection on these initial questions.
When the adviser asked Rick if he was “listening to his own voice,” he at first had a hard time even reflecting on the question. He gradually began to realize that he carried around inside his head a large, powerful image of Ed Danvers; almost all of his thinking about his career had been done under the watchful eyes of that image. Rick needed to distance himself and pay attention to his own internal sense of direction. To facilitate this exploration, the adviser encouraged him to write down some of his thoughts and ideas in a journal.
He found that in the privacy of his journal he could talk about things he did not like about his father’s manner and way of leading the company. To his surprise, Rick wrote down ideas he had never clearly formulated before—about how the company should be managed and the kinds of projects it should undertake. He wrote about recruiting a group of top supervisors who would make decisions as a team. He envisioned working with city planners and top architects in constructing urban shopping plazas with broad vistas, parks, and streets closed to traffic. Learning to distinguish the sound of his own voice, he began to define his own vision of the company and his future leadership style.
2. WHAT ARE MY REAL INTERESTS AND SKILLS?
Because their experience is usually limited, young adults often have trouble assessing their true interests and skills. When faced with the opportunity of a position within the family business, they may never get around to discovering their full range of talents or alternative career interests. Their title in the company and the benefits are often so alluring that they may not ask themselves whether the work will actually suit them.
There are many resources available for young people wishing to explore skills and interests. Through networking with peers in various occupations, internships, career development books, and Internet resources, young adults can find out about a wide variety of career options sometimes not available within the family business. In addition, various personality and vocational tests are available to help someone discover hidden talents and interests, and how they relate to different areas of work. With a more complete view, young adults are better able to evaluate the question: “Do my career interests and preferences really match the actual work I will be doing in the family business?”
Several assessment instruments proved helpful in relating Rick’s interests and abilities to his father’s offer. He began by completing the Campbell Interest and Skill Survey, one of several vocational assessment tools that can help people identify potential careers. His results here showed that his interests and skills matched those of other leaders in applied, hands-on businesses such as his father’s construction company. It was also helpful for Rick to see the many occupations for which he was not a good fit. The tests made him realize that he had already narrowed down the universe of options: In choosing to go into construction, he had been listening to his own voice more than he knew.
However, his responses on a personality inventory, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, revealed how distinctly different he was from his extroverted and ebullient father. The Myers-Briggs is a self-report inventory widely used in organizations and corporations that assesses four dimensions of personality preferences, including ways of relating to the external world and ways of processing information and making decisions. This tool is useful in understanding leadership styles and in predicting how people with different styles who work together will complement each other or clash. Looking at his Myers- Briggs scores, Rick could see that his more introverted, practical nature had its own unique advantages, and some possible disadvantages, for the family business.
Rick came to recognize that, although he had a good practical intelligence, he was not as intellectually gifted as his father in this business. Furthermore, his tendency to weigh decisions more slowly could be a detriment in the fast-paced construction industry. On the other hand, as Rick reviewed the data about himself and thought about the position, he came to feel that the work fit him quite well. Understanding that his more introverted nature did not make him just a “paler version” of Ed Danvers, but carried its own unique strengths, he now had a more nonjudgmental way of looking at his natural style. For the first time, he was able to realistically assess what it would take for him to succeed as a leader. Rick found himself excited about his father’s offer.
3. WHAT WILL WORKING WITH MY FAMILY REALLY BE LIKE?
Before deciding on a career in the family business, young adults are wise to give as much thought to the family’s style and pattern of relationships as they do to the nature of the work. Is the family close and affectionate? Do the members talk directly and resolve problems easily? Or is it a more distant family that does not communicate very well and argues frequently? Some families are so clearly riddled with conflict that a young person chooses to work in this environment only at great risk. Most families, however, exhibit a mixture of dysfunctional and functional behavior, which can make the young person’s decision more complex.
For example, one major difficulty almost all families have is in seeing each other objectively beyond their old, familiar roles. People change as they grow, but family members tend to get pigeonholed into roles carved out for them as children and perpetuated through family stories. “She’s the bright one, but not very practical.” Or, “He’s creative but so disorganized; his room was always a disaster area.” These characterizations are repeated so often that the child who is the target may begin to believe them. Young adults gradually acquire a more accurate picture of themselves and their capabilities through school and work. When deciding whether to work with other family members, young adults thus need to consider whether the family is flexible enough to allow other roles and abilities to grow as the children emerge into adulthood.
The third question proved to be crucial for Rick because he still carried many unresolved feelings about his father; likewise, his father had complicated feelings toward him. In many cases, understanding innate differences in operating style helps people talk about their conflicted feelings and goes a long way toward resolving misunderstandings. So the adviser asked Ed to complete the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator along with Rick. The results provided them with a nonjudgmental view of their differences and provided a vocabulary to talk about the ways in which father and son had misinterpreted each other’s behavior over the years. Gradually, they began to gain some insight into how they could use their differences to work together, rather than against each other.
Rick came to acknowledge that over the years he had reacted passively to his father’s “moods” and lack of availability by distancing himself from Ed. Some sons and daughters in Rick’s situation, living with a powerful but preoccupied father, may have rebelled outwardly, but Rick chose a more inward route, withdrawing from conflict rather than confronting the issues. He acknowledged that if he chose to work with his father, he would need to take a more active stance with Ed and resist his own natural tendency to withdraw.
This was an important shift for Rick, one that would be examined even further when he contemplated the fourth and fifth questions.
4. HAVE I LOOKED FULLY AT MY MOTIVATIONS FOR CHOOSING TO WORK, OR NOT TO WORK, FOR THE FAMILY BUSINESS?
Our motivations for any action are a mixture of familiar, conscious thoughts and feelings and less familiar, less conscious thoughts. Conscious motivations are usually the more socially acceptable reasons we attribute to our behavior, so we accept them and even willingly discuss them with others. The more hidden, unconscious motivations, in contrast, reflect more self-centered and immature elements of our personalities, and are therefore harder to acknowledge. It is not easy, for example, for a young person to acknowledge that he or she is highly competitive and jealous of a sibling’s success, or has personal doubts about their abilities, or that the desire to work in the family business may contain the shadowy remnants of childhood desire for the prolonged protection of the family. But it is usually better to confront these issues now rather than allow them to fester. Bringing these issues to light as much as possible enables the young person to make career decisions with greater clarity.
Most young adults instinctively know how complicated their inner world really is, but they usually do not know that others share this inner experience. Indeed, there seems to be a mixture of mature and immature motivations behind all behaviors, even in accomplished adults who seem confident and self-assured. The task is not to try and “weed out” the less noble motivations—which is not possible—but to first take an honest and compassionate look at these hidden thoughts, and then make decisions based on this greater awareness.
Rick used a simple but powerful exercise to help identify some of his deeper motivations for wanting, or not wanting, to work in the family business. He made an exhaustive list of all that he hoped for and wanted from a career with Danvers Construction. Most people making such a list will stop after a few items, thinking the task complete. Rick was pressed to go deeper and write out everything he could possibly think of, no matter how unrealistic it seemed to him.
Rick came up with more than 40 desires he was looking for in his career. To his surprise, many of these desires were in conflict. On the one hand, he discovered an old longing to be recognized and appreciated by a father who was often too preoccupied to pay attention to him. Yet he realized that this feeling was in conflict with his own stubbornly competitive feeling toward his father and his need to be accepted on his own terms. As he looked at his relationship with his father in this light, Rick came to see that he carried some childhood assumptions that he would need to put into a different perspective if he wanted to have a mature working relationship with his father. He saw that his father had his own father-son issues and, rather than waiting for Ed’s expressed validation, he would need to rely more on his own sense of accomplishment and objective measures of his performance.
5. WHAT PRICE WILL I PAY FOR CHOOSING TO WORK FOR THE FAMILY BUSINESS?
Inevitably, the decision to join a family business is a compromise with an individual’s quest for self-expression and a unique identity. There are certainly many benefits and advantages in this choice, but there are also hidden costs. People pay a terrible price when they abandon or ignore deep aspirations.
One of the most important psychological insights of the last 100 years is that conflicts and feelings too painful to bear are first denied and repressed and then projected outwards onto others. Repressing these feelings, how-ever, only buries the problem; it doesn’t solve it. Inevitably, the problem will be projected outward in the form of blaming others as the cause of one’s unhappiness. Young adults who choose to join the family business while minimizing their secret dreams or personal goals may find that years later they are plagued by complicated and negative feelings about their careers—without really understanding the source of these feelings. For example, they may “forget” that they themselves made the choice to join the family business and then focus on “family pressure” as the cause. Not accepting the responsibility for this choice, they may ruminate all their lives about “lost opportunities” and harbor resentments against individual family members or the business as a whole. Of course, no one can fully anticipate all of their unconscious motivations, but people in their 20s can at leastbecome aware of the conflict between their desire for individual identity and the desire for the security and comfort of the group. If not attended to, this conflict can become much more difficult and apparent later in one’s career journey, usually surfacing most intensely during the mid-career transition, a period in the late 30s and early 40s when men and women reevaluate their life choices and career path.
As Rick progressed through the questions, the large mental image of Ed Danvers was shrinking; he was hearing his own voice more clearly. When asked about what he would be giving up by joining the family company, Rick realized he had never really had a competing vision calling him to pursue another career. Despite his earlier reluctance, he came to acknowledge that Danvers Constructions was “in his bones.” He did want to be his own type of leader and to relate to his father differently, but he had uncovered no secret ambitions—for example, to become an architect or to start his own business in another part of the country. It seemed unlikely that he would be carrying a lot of unconscious baggage with him if he chose to join the business.
With this shift in his understanding, as well as his increased knowledge of his strengths and weaknesses and a greater appreciation of the stylistic differences between himself and his father, he decided to engage in a real dialogue about the offer. Rick began by telling his father about his serious interest in his potential future with Danvers Construction and also began articulating some of his own ideas for the company. He discussed his concerns, particularly the possible problems that might arise from their personality differences and pastdifficulties in their relationship. Rick also outlined his proposal for an entry strategy and a three-year trial period. Ed, secretly pleased to see his son’s bolder approach, responded well to Rick’s proposal. They agreed to have Rick rotate through jobs in various parts of the business with which he was not familiar; meet regularly to discuss business and ownership issues; and continue to examine their working relationship, using an outside adviser when necessary.
Despite evidence that people today change jobs frequently and expect to have several careers over a lifetime, there is still a widespread belief that one should have only one job or one career. That belief sometimes makes young adults feel that their career decisions are irrevocable. People who choose to join a family business in their 20s—or not to join it—do not have to live with that decision for the rest of their lives. Many still-young adults change their minds and leave the business after working in it for several years. In contrast, others decide to join the family company later in their careers. Though early career decisions are not easy to undo, people should avoid the temptation to view reversals as failures. Successful people do not see the world in a black-and-white monochrome of either success or failure. They look honestly at themselves and find opportunities for growth and learning in their experiences. ▪
Katherine Grady, Ph.D. is a Partner at Lansberg • Gersick in New Haven, Connecticut. Formerly on the faculty at Yale University and the Center for Creative Leadership, she has been a family business consult-ant for over 20 years. Her work focuses on continuity planning, governance design, and leadership development.
Family Business Magazine, Spring 2000
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