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How to Get a Family Business Career Back on Track Following a Disappointing Start

By Craig E. Aronoff, Ph.D.

A young, next-generation family member joins the family’s business. In the best-case scenario, he or she joins the business with some skills and outside work experience, a good attitude, and an appreciation for the opportunity presented. Sometimes, though, this ideal scenario is not what really happens.

There are a number of ways that next-generation members get off to a bad start. In some cases they are put in positions for which they are not qualified. In others, they bring an attitude of superiority and entitlement. They may hesitate to interact with other employees because they feel that all eyes are on them. Any of these situations can undermine a next-generation member’s credibility with the people with whom they work.

Unfortunately, these early mistakes may be compounded by Dad’s and Mom’s reaction to them. If the parents’ generation does not address performance problems, other employees will complain of unfair treatment, and rightly so. Business rules that are followed by everyone else, but are bent, broken or ignored for junior will undermine the culture, the image and the respect that senior family members have worked so hard to establish. While the intent is to do what’s best for all, and to avoid conflict and keep everyone happy, allowing performance or attitude problems to escalate has a negative impact on the next-generation member and other employees in the business.

When these situations develop, the best solution is often a decision by the young person to work elsewhere, at least for a period of years. If that person is not capable of making that decision on his or her own, a family member may need to intervene to help in the decision-making process. If the exit is managed well there can be the possibility for the family member to return to the family business after gaining the knowledge, experience and maturity to allow him or her to make a meaningful contribution to the business. A graceful exit requires the next-generation member and his or her parents to understand what has happened and why, that everyone accepts appropriate responsibility, and that appropriate communications are made to other employees. At the same time, management should learn how to better manage these situations—particularly if other siblings or cousins might be waiting in the wings. Clear family business employment policies and procedures should be developed and implemented to minimize the probability of repeat occurrences.

In their own family business world, young family employees are like celebrities. They attract tremendous attention, become the focus of the rumor mill, and suffer close scrutiny of all their actions. Many times they are unable to develop working relationships with other employees because they are unable to trust the motives of those who seek relationships with them. This circumstance is one of the uncomfortable realities of being in the next generation of a business-owning family. It just goes with the territory. But if things aren’t going well, it makes things much worse.

Coming back from a work situation that has gone bad for a young, next-generation employee is kind of like what a celebrity—who’s had public problems—has to do to make a comeback. USA Today recently offered seven steps toward rehabilitating a tarnished image. Family employees who’ve gotten off track might benefit from the advice given to individuals such as Britney Spears, Miss USA Tara Conner, Tom Cruise and Whitney Houston. According to Evangelia Souris of Optimum International Center for Image Management, the seven steps are:

  1. Own up to what’s been happening. Show that you “get” the problem; apologize, exercise humility, take your share of responsibility.
  2. Disappear for a while. Step out of the family business. Give yourself a break to regroup and refocus.
  3. Avoid negative attention. Keep a low profile and be particularly careful not to say or do things that would add to the negative perceptions or get in the way of any opportunities to build new, more constructive perceptions.
  4. Be seen and not heard. Over time, begin to reintegrate into the family business. Attend business functions where the family is involved, but keep it low key as you raise your profile.
  5. Align yourself with causes you believe in. Find your passion and follow it both at work and in your other activities. By focusing on your passion, you are most likely to be motivated to achieve results, make a difference and be a contributor. That kind of achievement can build credibility for the long term.
  6. Choose the right career project. By finding an activity where you can achieve success, you’ll build the confidence of everyone—especially yourself. We know young family business individuals who have joined the U. S. Marines, led community campaigns, gotten new jobs and earned promotions, started their own businesses, and taken other actions that have led to great things in the family business and out.
  7. Reemerge with a new image. Take your time and take advantage of the experience, knowledge and maturity that time—properly used—can provide. After achieving success, developing maturity, gaining perspective and finding knowledge, a young family member can change from being a perceived liability to being seen as an essential asset for sustaining the business across generations. The problems of the past then become a fading, slightly amusing, memory as the now-not-so-young family member becomes a real contributor to the team that carries the family business forward.
 

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