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Stop Complaining About Your Business!

You need to vent--but bringing too much home from the office can spark resentment.
December 1, 2000

Once upon a time, two brothers in a family business got into a fierce argument at work. They shared their anger with their wives, who were supportive and defensive of their respective husbands' positions. Each wife built up such resentment of the other brother and his family that at a dinner at their in-laws' home, the wives could do nothing but glare at each other.

The brothers, on the other hand, appeared to have a wonderful time. Much to their wives' confusion, they joked with each other all evening and played a friendly game of basketball after dinner.

What had happened? Simple. The brothers forgot to tell their wives they'd resolved the business dispute. They were well past it, but it took the sisters-in-law months to get over their anger.

This is not a fairy tale, according to Bernard Kliska, partner of The Family Business Consulting Group in Chicago, who shared this true story. That can easily happen if you fail to consider how spouses impact a family business.

"Someone who's never been exposed to it doesn't really understand that the family business is the moving force in the family," says Kliska. That's why it's so important to talk about what role, if any, the nonfamily spouses will have in the business. Discuss, preferably before marriage or before the family member enters the business, how he or she can be an instrument of goodwill rather than an unwitting instigator. For example, consider how people handle employment gripes. A woman comes home from work and tells her spouse about how unfair the boss is. Her husband is sympathetic and defensive of his wife-even urging her to look for another job. But the situation becomes infinitely more complicated when the boss is your wife's father with whom you have a standing Saturday golf game.

A workable agreement has to be set up. What's expected of the family member who is working in the business? What's expected of his or her spouse?

The Family Member's Responsibilities

Family business members should consider strategies to encourage peaceful and supportive relationships between spouses and the family:

Dale Crownover is president of Texas Nameplate Company Inc., a Dallas manufacturer of nameplates, ID labels, dials and panels started more than 50 years ago by his father. Crownover has attained a balance that works for him, his wife and the business. "I don't bore Julie with details of the family issues in the business," Crownover says. "But we do talk over coffee about troublesome processes, not troublesome people, and she knows everything about the business's finances."

The Spouse's Expectations

Spouses must also take the initiative to express their expectations clearly:

You needn't discuss business all the time. Your career or activities are equally interesting topics of dinner-time conversation. "If the family business is too intrusive," says Gage, "it can take a toll on intimacy."

What's Your Role?

Every family business is as unique as every individual, so the roles spouses play will be different for each. Here are a few that spouses might shoulder:

If family members have any doubt about how important spouses are to the business, Kliska points out that these are the people who are helping raise the potential successors. If your spouse doesn't communicate enthusiasm for and support of your family and the business, how likely is it that your kids will take control of the reins one day?