Dear Advisor:

After earning my MBA and working outside the family business, I recently started my first real job in my family’s business. I’m grateful that the business is in a large metropolitan area. Even though there’s lots going on, I don’t really know anyone in town. I’m single. I want to make friends and have a social life. Because I spend most of my time at work, the people I’ve met so far are mostly my co-workers in the family business. They regularly go out together for TGIFs and other social occasions, and I’m glad to report that they’ve invited me to come along.

I don’t think they are treating me any differently than anyone else, but my parents don’t agree. They’ve warned me about socializing with co-workers. They’re especially concerned about drinking and dating with employees. I really don’t agree with their concerns. I can handle this; in fact, I think it’s good for me to build these relationships. What do you think?  

Thank you for submitting your question. It is entirely normal and predictable that next-generation folks will gravitate toward socializing with non-family employees. Doing so increases your comfort level with the other employees and, just as likely, their comfort with you. No one will deny that having friends and a support network is beneficial to one’s mental health.  

The problems with these types of friendships and extracurricular activities, though, are not likely to show themselves for some time to come. Here are a few examples of the sort of problems we can all but guarantee will occur over time:  

  • The company has to lay off employees, and a peer of yours with more seniority is let go. As you are a successor to leadership or ownership, this presumably makes strategic sense for the enterprise. But you will be viewed as having received special treatment, and that will put a strain on your relationships.
  • The company president makes a decision unpopular with the rank and file—a reduction in benefits or pay or what have you. You are going to hear some rather negative comments made about your parent(s), and you will have to make a choice right then and there to either toe the company line or side with your new friends. It will be a very divisive experience for you.
  • An employee will pull you into a conflict with another member of your family. You may be asked to serve as an intermediary and defend your friend’s position to your parent(s). This is called triangulation, and it is very rarely a positive experience for anyone involved in the conflict. On the other hand, if you tell the employee to go speak to your father or mother, you will be sending the message that you are not going to defend your friend, which will assuredly strain that relationship.
  • The day is going to come when you will have to terminate one of the line workers—and if you continue on your current track, that is going to be a very, very messy dismissal.
  • Here is a common but intensely tragic outcome. You are out with the workers for TGIF and someone has a little too much fun. There is damage of some sort: a car accident, an incident at the bar, a police report. You are now indelibly part of that event and it will take you at least 10 years to put space between you and that bad memory—just around the time you may be lobbying to become the next leader of your enterprise.

Your primary focus as a new employee should be to fulfill the agreed-upon professional development plan you have hopefully drawn up with your parent(s). The plan should reflect your background, strengths, weaknesses, the ultimate position you wish to ascend to, and the life and work experiences that will most and best position you for that role when the time comes. This means that in every job you do, you have to achieve outcomes like these:

  • Excellence at the position and an ability to step in and lead that department should the occasion arise.
  • Being able to develop others within each department you work in and to help those other employees understand the processes that are in place for them to excel and rise through the ranks.
  • Movement within the organization and spending most of your time in areas you are weakest in—for example: if you are a sales pro, you need to develop your muscle in accounting and administration and purchasing.  

As a general rule, non-family employees are thrilled to have you working there. It sends a message that the company is taking steps to prepare for continuity. But more often than not, your co-workers are going to see you as a conduit to the boss. These two points alone suggest to us that you are not, and will never be, “just another employee.” The situation would be different if you were in high school and this was a part-time summer job where you were an hourly employee doing grunt work. But at this stage of the game, you are being groomed for one of the top seats in the corporation. Our recommendation is that you act the part.  

Many next-generation managers like you with whom we work develop and find very meaningful friendships with peers in other family firms. There are also dozens of next-generation groups in university-based family business programs around the nation as well as in your trade associations, where you will find men and women grappling with the very same issues and who—like you—look forward to letting their hair down on Friday nights.