3 Tips to Running a Successful Family Business

Most people that I speak to, seem unhappy in being in a family business. I am referring to the CEOs and Managing Directors, who seem usually more unhappy than happy. I thought that they would be much, much happier working with their family in a business, and foster such a great relationships with workers and family members. On the other hand, I meet business owners who treat their employees like family (without even having any blood ties with any one of them), and they seem happy.

So what’s this all about? I have seen some family businesses really take off and make it big, and I have seen some that just can’t stop fighting about their differences, and eventually they chew each other up, and set up their own companies that compete with each other. Only to find the family bond has gotten so sour that they only meet and smile once a year during festivities, because it’s the “family tradition”.

Why doesn’t it work when it doesn’t?

Most family businesses have employees that are made of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces or nephews, and there is a lack of professionalism when employees want to behave like family while at work. Yes, you can acknowledge you are family, but behave professionally. Some family members bring into work the family arguments they had on Sunday! Its normal to have family arguments, but to bring it to work the next day, only makes employees very uncomfortable.

Here are some things you should note, in running a family business:

1. Everyone needs to have their professional role

We have worked with many family businesses in the past, and the biggest advice is: “Leave your Family Title at the Door”. You may be older sister at home, but when you comerk, you are “HR Director”. Be conscious that you are wearing this identity, so that you can maintain professionalism.

Another thing I noticed with family businesses, they find it hard to DEFINE their roles. When I worked with this brother and sister that ran a tuition center, it was unspoken rule that the sister handles the finances, while the brother manages the teachers. When they needed growth (meaning work harder and smarter), it became an issue because the scope was unintentional in the first place, and no one agreed on the role. It just fell on to them organically.

2. Have a Clear Outlet to Grumble and Not Be Judged
This should be an important rule of the game, and this is important. Run a WIFLE, and this stands for “What I Feel Like Expressing”. In the WIFLE, everyone stands/sits in a circle, and expresses the way they feel and passes the WIFLE on to the person on the right. During the WIFLE, no one interrupts or interjects, and every one listens.

WIFLEs have been instrumental in keeping businesses together. It is a neutral place to air your frustrations and celebrate happiness, and it is the duty of the CEO/leader of the organization to ensure this place is safe. If you (CEO) react and scream during these sessions, rest assured your employees will back off and clam up. Do the WIFLE regularly, and invite openness in sharing, including yourself.

3. Have a 3rd Party or Outside Party Involved

I wouldn’t say that this works only for family businesses, but any business. Sometimes getting an outside person, can be more effective than getting things done yourself (as the CEO). Working with someone experienced from the outside can reduce blind spots, and can quickly help you to align when you have gone off track.

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Maresa Ng is the CEO of Spark Activators Sdn Bhd. She is also an entrepreneur, author, investor, professional speaker and business growth specialist based in Kuala Lumpur. Find out more about how she helps her clients grow their businesses at www.maresang.com

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