Being the son, daughter or other relative of a family business's leader can be a real dilemma when you're 20-something and eager to prove your worth to the family--but also want to be friends with your co-workers. You're still young enough that the business's future doesn't likely rest on your shoulders, and if you've joined the company straight out of high school or college, you're probably very interested in building friendships with the people you spend your days with.
But like it or not, unless you change your identity and your last name, you'll never be one of the gang. You can buddy up to your work pals during the day and go out with them for a drink at night, rationalizing it as team-building, says Paul Karofsky, executive director of Northeastern University's Center for Family Business in Boston, but that's not what's really happening.
People are always aware of who you are--and as someone who may own the business someday, you're different. "You probably have more money--and definitely more clout--than your peers," says Dennis Jaffe, family business consultant and management professor at Saybrook Graduate School.
When you speak, people listen--even though you don't always speak for the family or the business. "And you're immediately thought of as rotten or spoiled, even if you aren't," says Mike Spiewak, 47, CEO of Spiewak & Sons, a New York City manufacturer of uniforms and outerwear. He was put in an awkward position--as the owner's son--when he came into his father's business in 1973. Now he's trying to advise his 24-year-old nephew, Aaron, about how to walk the precarious line between being a caretaker to the company and being a friendly, respected co-worker.
Patricia Schiff Estess writes family business histories and is the author of two books, Managing Alternative Work Arrangements (Crisp Publishing) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage (Betterway Press).
Young family members likely have expectations that are different from those of their co-workers. "It's an internal desire for things to be right because this is `your' business--even if you're not a stockholder," says Karofsky.
Consider the case of a young woman who was a customer service representative for her father's business and good friends with one of the company's hot-shot salespeople. Over time, she noticed her friend's sloppy paperwork was causing repeated customer complaints. She complained about it to her supervisor, who did nothing, so she went to the salesperson's supervisor, who also did nothing. Then she turned to her father, who raised holy hell. Problem solved? Not quite. The whole incident exploded in her face because although she was simply trying to resolve a bad situation for the company, she wound up alienating the salesperson, his boss and her boss. "She fulfilled everyone's negative expectations of her [by going to her father]," observes Karofsky.
There's another problem with becoming buddies with other people in the company who are your age, says Jaffe. "People latch on to individuals they know will be moving up in a company--because they know that helps their own careers," he says. "As the heir or a powerful force in a family business, that's you. So my question to 20- or 30-somethings would be, `Are people gathering around you because they smell power or are they really your friends?' " That's a difficult question to answer.
In addition, if you become too close to your work buddies, "You can't engage in one form of camaraderie: making fun of or criticizing your boss," says Aaron Spiewack. If you do, family members will lose respect for you, and co-workers will become suspect.
So how do you handle the dual position?
*Be friendly but acknowledge the differences. While you may work closely with others who have the same job title you do (for the time being), you can't get away from the fact that you have a different status. Jaffe highlights that with a story: "When I was being shown around Hallmark Cards some years ago, the guide pointed out a young man from a sea of people. `That's young man Hall,' the guide said. `He's going to run the company someday.' "
- Anticipate what will happen. Your credibility as one of the future leaders of the business is at stake--and it's established early on in your business career. Talk to your family about possible conflicts of interest, how best to represent the owners and family both at work and outside of work, and how you might handle some hypothetical sticky situations, like fielding employee gripes.
- Hone your leadership techniques early on. Co-workers know you have power that extends beyond your title--especially when it comes to channeling suggestions and complaints. "Rather than rush to use the power, work through established channels and ask the complaining or suggesting employee how he or she proposes [the situation] be handled," suggests Karofsky.
- Find a trusted mentor. "For safe venting, find a confidante," Karofsky suggests. It's best if the person is not related to you. You need to be able to talk to someone who is wise, a good listener, and a person who has no vested interest in the company.
- Build friendships outside the company. While you can and should build good relationships among the people you work with, says Jaffe, "It's essential that you have an independent group of friends that's not connected to the family business."
As much as you might like to be part of the gang at work, says Jaffe, understand that as a future leader in your family's business, you have to maintain your own credibility, set an example, and be the model for the values your family holds sacred. Like it or not, that's the reality of life in a family business.
Spiewak & Sons, (212) 695-1620, http://www.spiewak.com
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