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Beginner’s Guide to the Great Family Business Drama

Entering the Family Business as a Next Generation Entrepreneur? Here’s what you should know!

Two years back, my sister and I decided to quit our jobs in the plush areas of law and investment banking and join our family business. Two years, hence we look back on the highs and lows of a next-generation entrepreneur and family business and present before you the 10 commandments we wish we knew!

Learn to read the cheque before writing one: Before you assume reigns of the family legacy, consider working in the outside world. You will get acquainted with not only the employer-employee relationship from the other side of the table but also the modern business practices. The unique skill-set and values you will develop while working under the management will help you become a better manager. Additionally, experiencing a different career trajectory will help you make a conscious decision to join the family business (if at all) instead of treating it as an entitlement

Family Tree and Family Business are Disjoint Sets: Your relationships in the family cannot be taken advantage of in the business. Expect unbiased promotion and unfiltered criticism because the gratification of self-earned credibility in the family business is far more than the privilege of one’s last name

Share joy at home; share burden at work: Spiderman has ingrained in our heads that with great power, comes great responsibility. With a family business, the responsibility inches even further as you will be expected to balance relationships at work and home. Therefore, refrain from carrying the rainy days of work back home and avoid transcending the merrymaking in the family to business boardrooms. We can assure you that this commandment comes with practice and a lot of patience. But, the sooner you are able to walk the fine balance, the better precedent you will set early on

Go with the flow, don’t swim upstream: As a new entrant, it is natural to feel overwhelmed with the position and the power to ‘enable change’. You are finally your own boss and want to act like one? We get it, but before you go about revolutionising the workplace, take time to comprehend the culture of the business, the degree of autonomy placed in your hands and family dynamics in play. You are no longer in a 9 to 5 job where your responsibility ends as you swipe your card out for the day. In a family business, you will be both the initiator and the facilitator and hence must make the environment malleable before moving the furniture around

You win some, you lose some: To join your family business and not have ambitious and larger than life goals would be a shame. A big vision is a win-win for both the newer and former generations as it not only fuels the young fighting spirit but also helps keep the legacy going. However, amidst the rigours of the working day, it is easy to lose focus from the macro picture. Or there could be resistance from existing systems that could slow you down. In such moments, it becomes your responsibility, as the agent of change, to assess the situation to see if you must head-on aggressively or choose the battles worth fighting for. This will be a constant tug of war that you will be engaged in and one that can take a lot of time to master. So, breathe and be patient!

Sunday=Fun day?: Amidst the horde of spoken and unspoken responsibilities that you have to now manage, the last thing you may want to do on a Sunday (because that’s the only holiday you shall get, if at all) is invest time in personal development. You may scoff and claim that the practical experience of running a business is enough education you need, but unfortunately, in today’s time, it alone won’t make the cut. Make time to work on your long term vision by reading relevant books, attending conferences, and learning new languages. Maybe the previous generations never did any of the above but that is because they didn’t need to at the time. The horde of information that exists today is for good reason and one’s inability to adapt with changing times could be one’s kryptonite

Make Tea not War: The typical problems that plague family businesses, such as lack of trust or failures to professionalize are usually the result of poor communication. As an active contributor to the family business, bridge the communication gap and initiate modern business communication techniques such as separate communication agenda between the ownership and the management, communication etiquettes, 360o feedback, and team-building exercises. In our business, we have set Sunday as the day when we sit down to assess the week that has gone by and touch base with our big goals to ensure everyone is aligned and working in cohesion to achieve them. Of course, all this happens over big cups of chai to detonate any potential tensions

Vacate if the chair is too big or too small: Every business should invest in an exit strategy and so should you. Take the famous example of a frog in water that manages to adapt to the gradual heating of the liquid. It eventually gets killed because of this. The lesson? Jump out at the right time. However, what makes this tricky is the emotional baggage that can make it hard to remain objective and rational when a family is involved. However, tough decisions when handled with wisdom and grace can become the bedrock of healthy personal relationships that exceed the expiration of professional ones. If at any point you decide to exit, be clear and timely in communicating your choice. Take ownership of your decision and show immense appreciation for all that you have learned while working in the business. Remember to walk out of the door without having burnt any bridges 

Innovation is the new black: Before you roll your eyes on the lack of ingenuity of this commandment, hold on, let us explain why we are spelling out the one thing every business must follow. It is easy for start-ups to make space for innovation and technology in their core business models. This is a natural step for them, but not so much for traditional family businesses. Centuries of mental conditioning will tell you that old is gold and change is uncomfortable and maybe not required at all. This changes when businesses are in the hands of the dynamic millennials and who have the ability to innovate existing systems to a higher level of efficiency. So, don’t let the fixed structures in your new workplace intimidate you. These fixed structures are in more need of young blood than you may think (sorry, for the gory image)

Take it easy: Probably the biggest differentiator of a family and non-family business lies in the former’s appetite to take more risk as usually the only stakeholders to the business are family members. It is quite likely that it is with the same spirit that your family started the business in the first place; quite possible that they didn’t have much to lose and therefore they didn’t sweat the small things. Adopt that same spirit of your parents and scale it to a whole new level combined with all that you have learnt in this article. It is as important to show a strong set of ideals and character as it is to have fun!

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