I’ve been working in the family business since high school. Since graduating from college, I’ve been in it full time. At 29, I’m leading a relatively small business unit, but it is profitable and is our fastest growing division. I love my family and appreciate the opportunity afforded me by our family business, but nothing feels right. Work isn’t satisfying. I don’t feel that I’ve made my own choices or that I’m in control of my destiny. I don’t really know what I want to do or what I should do. What do you think?
First, if you’ve been working in the business since high school, that means that you’ve been at this for at least ten years. If in that time you have not found participation in the business satisfying or rewarding, then it is unlikely that the next ten years will be any different. If you agree with that logic, let’s assume that it is a fact and use it as a base for the next steps.
The first thing to do is to make a strategic decision about your future. That is to say, ask yourself where you must be when you’re 49, or 69. Make that decision regardless of the realities of the situation. Forget the complication factors and the tactical things that must be done to realize your strategic plan. If the image of yourself at a future date is that of someone not working for the family business, then you have decided to leave, you simply don’t know how to do it. Furthermore, the steps that you need to take to get on with your life may hamper you for going forward. Perhaps you are fearful of disappointing the family Mom and Dad in particular. Or maybe you are fearful of being in the real world and you don t really know whether your skills and talents would be valued in a world outside your family’s business.
Whatever the reasons, you must attack this issue like any other. You have identified the problem you’re unhappy in your current situation. The course of action, at least at a high level, is also clear you need to change your current situation. List out all the reasons why you can’t leave the family business. Once the list is complete reduce the list to those issues that must be resolved in order to change your situation. Among the list may be, finding someone to fill your role in the family business, transitioning responsibility to others in the company, etc.
Once all these tactical issues have been addressed, it’s time to talk to Mom and Dad. You’re probably very apprehensive about this and you’re not sure how to go about it, but I would suggest that the second half of your paragraph above is a great way to start. You must tell your parents how you feel, be open and honest and trust that they love you as their child first and that they want you to be happy. Tell them you are not satisfied with your role, that you don’t feel as if you have control over your life, and so on. Draw a clear line between the family relationship and the business relationship. Make sure they know that you appreciate what the business has done for you, but let them know that what they have done as parents means so much more. Yes, they may be disappointed or even angry, but they may also surprise you with understanding and compassion. In any event, you own your future and with that ownership comes responsibility. If you don’t do something now you may find yourself locked into a future that has been determined for you. But if you take the situation head-on now, you can help make the transition as smooth as possible. Share with your parents the plan of action to ensure that the business is not harmed by your absence. Demonstrate that you have taken into account all of the business issues. Underscore that this does not, nor should it, affect the family relationship after all you re not resigning from the family. Lastly on this point, acknowledge that you cannot be responsible for how your parents react or what they feel. You can only be responsible for how you act and what you feel.
In the end, the difficulty of addressing each of these issues is simply the cost of doing what you must do. Avoiding the problem will serve only to make facing the problem more costly in the future. Sometimes the perceived costs are too great to allow one to take action. That risk, more than any other, is why you must do it at your first opportunity. For example, imagine the perceived costs of telling your parents when you’re 39 when they may be thinking of retiring.
You mentioned that you were not certain what you wanted to do. I take that to mean after you’ve decided to leave. I would recommend starting with the things you love to do and trying to see if there is some way to make a living doing one of them. Explore a little bit; maybe try a few different things to see if they make you happy.
Finally, tap into the belief that everything is going to be all right. You won’t starve nor will you become homeless but if you take the plunge you just might find that you’re happy and well suited for something else out there. Do it for yourself or you may find yourself regretful that you never pursued your destiny.
This response was written by Marc Malloy, a student in Dr. Aronoff s Kennesaw State University MBA seminar on family business. Used with permission.