Family Business: Does Yours Need a Tuneup?
There’s a lot of good information around that can help you keep your family – and business – humming.
Family businesses usually start with one person or one couple or two brothers opening an independent shop and following their dream idea. This kind of business grows organically as founders age and offspring grow up. It is a common occurrence in our industry, and one that isn’t particularly planned out … it just happens.
Navigating the maze of family dynamics
For many shop owners, the “family business” really becomes everybody’s business and that is not always a good thing. If going to work feels like entering a maze of family dynamics, then read on! There are some tips and tweaks that can make a difference in how everyone relates at work. So let’s explore some of those.
As with any change you are thinking of making in your business, the most important tool is your plan and objectives. This may seem time consuming, but with any successful change implementation, the upfront work makes the results possible.
If you think there is friction from different generations in the business, there is a lot of good information and coaching help around that addresses what each generation brings to the workplace. I recently attended an AMI class, “Can’t We All Just Get Along? Working With Generation X, Y (and everyone else),” taught by Bill Haas, an industry consultant. I found it to be the answer to many of the expectations we have about other people’s work and work ethic.
Working with multigenerations
One of the real gifts I got from the training was to think about how, for the first time, it is quite possible to have not just two or three generations working side by side, but four generations sharing the workplace. This is a dynamic that needs some education to help open up the relationships and possibly resolve some unspoken conflict. Simply holding a meeting to discuss the values and expectations of each generational group can clear the air.
If you have siblings working together or you are a sibling working in the business, a time set aside to talk about what was learned about work growing up, and what opinions carried forward into the business because of upbringing, is a very targeted way to address issues that quite often are not spoken, but underlie other problems.
If your family business is structured with the parents at the top, it is almost mandatory to have discussions on a quarterly schedule. Sit down with everyone and map out a three- or six-month plan so everyone can clearly state his or her intentions. Because of the family dynamic, frequently someone is holding back on what they want for the future for fear of upsetting someone else; i.e., “Oh, you know how so-and-so is – they never want anything to change” or “I don’t want to scare our family by saying I want to retire.”
Family business meetings
Circular patterns of behavior and expectations develop over time and it takes time and effort to reroute those behaviors or to cut them as completely as you can. It is often quicker to stuff your feelings or triangulate the issues rather than take the time for planning and execution to change them … but really, how much better would work feel if you were free of some of the irritations that never seem to go away or get any better. The change can start with you.
Family Business Magazine offers a wealth of information on the kinds of issues that consistently show up, and regardless of the type of family business, the dynamic is pretty constant. Its No. 1 rule is: Make the issue discussable, and make the reason for the meeting clear. Make attendance mandatory, and to make it fair, everyone should be on the clock. Set start and end times. Get to the core issue at hand, but pick one agenda item as a starting point.
You can ask for anonymous suggestions for the first topic to attack. You can offer the opportunity to have others lead a second meeting so the expectation is not that this is a one-shot deal.
Family “business meetings” can actually become a wonderful opportunity for a family to affirm itself, to validate the strengths of each member, to acknowledge the values and love it shares, and its desire to pass those on through future generations of family and family business members.
Any communication, or in this case, lack of communication, can be fear based. And fear and success can’t occupy the same space. Using this as a guideline can be good to rely on when things get personal.
A suggestion from Haas that I just couldn’t wait to pass on to other family business owners was the idea of reverse mentoring. Identify what the younger staff is good at and let them run a workshop to bring others up to speed. I could use this tip immediately at our business, Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC), as we have Craig, my husband, as founder; me as being in charge of sales, marketing and event planning; Craig’s sister, Darcy, as educational media coordinator; and our son, Michael, as general office help. Darcy has led us in a workshop on updating how we do business from her perspective (she also runs her own company, Adshead Graphics); and Michael gave us his input on how to be more effective with Generation Y. The immediate result was that we felt smarter and better prepared just by taking time to use our own internal talent to move us forward.
Getting everyone to buy into making any change can be difficult. Only you know the personalities you are dealing with, pick an approach that feels most workable for your shop.
Many family shop owners I talked to in writing this article were clear about the “familiarity breeds issues” complex. In one shop, the mom was always late and always making up excuses and making everyone tired of the whole thing. They were brave and approached it with a “business meeting” led by one of the sons in the business. It had a great result: mom restructured her work schedule and committed to holding the new schedule with integrity.
What was easily uncovered was that she had been working a schedule that was set when she and her husband opened the business. Thirty years ago it was the right schedule for the right time. But 30 years later, she didn’t want to work that schedule anymore but was afraid to tell anyone. She really wanted a part-time schedule and was acting that out without officially changing anything. The whole shop and family is happier and mom is doing great with her new schedule. It gave her the freedom she wanted, eliminated the undertone at the shop and the biggest gain was that she got her enthusiasm back for the business.
The final suggestion is one I learned about from Ellen Barnes Pfiffner, a consultant in Dallas with a special niche of family business coaching. She suggests that you create a board of directors. Find some other business owners or ask your trade association for some suggestions. For literally the cost of four dinner meetings a year for your free board of directors, you will gain valuable advice. Give the board your key issues and let them run the meeting so you can be fully present to learn what might be next!
In closing, just pick one thing that would make your shop, your family and you more satisfied if it was resolved or reworked, and let’s get to work!
Editor’s Note: This article is one in a series of management articles that are contributed to AutoInc. by Automotive Management Institute (AMI) instructors. AMI’s team of professional and knowledgeable instructors cover a variety of topics designed to educate and train today’s service and repair professional. To learn more about AMI, its courses – including its monthly webinars – and instructors, visit www.AMIonline.org. AMI administers the distinguished Accredited Automotive Manager Program.
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