Being part of a business-owning family often brings with it many intense experiences—some pleasurable (record sales, acquisitions, promotions) and some not so pleasurable (conflicts with loved ones over strategy, the loss of key employees or loved ones, failure of a new initiative). Intense pleasurable experiences leave us rich with adrenaline, hope and confidence. Unfortunately, intense non-pleasurable experiences often leave us questioning if we can get through the disappointment of the loss, and may lead us to fear for the future of the business and sometimes whether we can ever repair or overcome a damaged family relationship.

In a business owned by a family for a generation or more, it is highly likely that the company will experience a failed new venture or strategy at some point in its life. Family business owners are often willing to share their stories of hardship, pointing to them as the source of key business lessons that served them later in the life of the company. For example, the crushing blow the business took when the customer responsible for 50 percent of its sales ended the relationship—becomes the story of survivability and courage—and the platform for the value of diversification to which the owners now adhere. The failure of a new product launch may become the lesson learned that successful processes need to be implemented in both new product development and launch.  

The lessons business owners tell often follow a few core patterns. “We decided to focus only on what we could control.” “We stopped the downward spiraling path we were on and started analyzing our options.” “We recognized that we needed help and sought resources to deal with the realities of our business.”  

Though families are often less willing to talk about the relationship challenges they have confronted, it is interesting to note that similar lessons can apply in these situations as well. For example, when a long-lived CEO dies unexpectedly, resulting in grief and anxiety over whether we can ever replace him in the business. In this situation, family heirs may panic and think that selling the business right away is the quickest way to avoid the feelings of loss or fear that are present. Or consider a situation where an event between family members in the business leads to loud words and threats to disconnect from the family. The hurt from relationship damage turns to anger and in order to stop the pain, we just want to avoid the issue altogether to get away from the feelings. Though we want the pain to be over, we feel trapped because with family members are involved, as we are connected by blood for our lifetime.  

How do we move forward? There are nuggets of wisdom in the stories of business failures described above. The steps are remarkably similar in family situations as well.  

Focus on what you can control

First, when family difficulties occur, we benefit by stopping our worrying about the things beyond our control and focus on what we can control. The most important thing to remember is you do not control others—you can only control yourself, and how you respond to the situation. To do that effectively, you must really look at yourself and seek to understand what is happening for you in this situation. For example, is fear playing a role here? Are you genuinely concerned that the situation can affect the long-term viability of the business? Is your reputation or personal financial security at risk? Blaming others for our fears is never effective. Rather, you must recognize the role these emotions are playing for you, share your feelings honestly, and ask others for their thoughts on how, in moving forward, change can occur that will reassure and feel fair to all stakeholders.  

Clarify options

Emotions like fear or jealousy that often impact family issues will cloud your best judgment and keep you from thinking through a range of creative options. You may want to make the pain stop and just do whatever comes first or seems most expedient. This is never a good idea. Issues that touch the business and family relations are almost always complex and loaded, and usually do not lend themselves to quick solutions. Take a step back, acknowledge the emotions you are feeling and push yourself to consider a broader range of options, remembering that no situation has only one solution. What can you live with, what can you not tolerate? Work with as many stakeholders as possible to creatively clarify the boundaries that all can live with going forward.

Recognize when you need help

Family relationships are complex, and the experience of owning and/or operating a business with family will strain the strongest of bonds. Family members, like anyone else, are imperfect and are likely to make many errors in their dealings with one another. It is easy to get trapped in a negative cycle of relationship “hurts”—and often hard to break this cycle without some outside help. Recognize that time and space may be needed to heal wounds—but also be open to the notion that you may need a neutral party to help guide or mediate the process the family may need to undergo in order to move past a serious relationship challenge. Acknowledge that these situations are normal, but they are hard and require courage and determination to address.   Just as the lessons of business failures and challenges help us to grow as an enterprising family, working through complex challenges on the family side is also a terrific opportunity for growth. Learning these lessons is not always easy, but for those who are willing to work hard and think creatively, relationships can be deeply enriched, improving family and business life.