It’s a Family Affair: Keeping Harmony in a Family-Owned Business

A man holding a card of family business in hand

A Note from Natalie: This week I’m excited to have a guest contributor to really dive deep into being in business with family.

Natalie Parker Enterprises boasts a proficient team equipped not only with the resources to support multinational billion-dollar corporations but also with the genuine commitment to assisting budding family start-ups. These startups, often led by first-generation entrepreneurs like the individual in question, aspire to create an enduring legacy for their children. Our authors’ personal journey with NPE has made her deeply invested in our clients’ success. Drawing from her own experience, she understands the unique challenges of partnering with family members in business, yet she’s also learned the art of maintaining harmony… most of the time.

The Backstory….

Sitting at the kitchen table working diligently on matters of the business my husband and I started at the outset of the COVID Pandemic, I was proud to be checking tasks from a list, but I was more excited to be an active part of legacy-building for our family.  Neither of us came from a family of entrepreneurs.  Perhaps I should qualify that a bit since my husband’s grandfather was a farmer and took care of a wife and five children and my husband with farming as his primary source of income.  That makes him an entrepreneur; however, a brilliant Jamaican farmer is not an exact blueprint for running a successful tech retail business.   

I proudly called my husband to the kitchen for show and tell.  I wanted to present my ideas for bolstering online sales with targeted marketing.  By the time he appeared, I had found some record-keeping things that could be better done in a different way than was currently being employed.  So, I made a suggestion to change it.  It was something extremely benign, or so I thought.  And I had no expectation that he would tell me not to do it.  When he did, I was fully confused.  Having been married to me for five years, my husband knows that I am bound to ask for an explanation any and every time I don’t get the answer I want.  Do not say it.  I am not a nagging wife.  I would just rather have an effective yes than a docile no.   

The ensuing CONVERSATION was epic in its completely calm yet passionate repetitive explanations and examples, full of life philosophies and success principles.  I may have even heard a fable at some point, but none of it made this record-keeping practice make any sense to me AT ALL.  Finally, we came to a compromise that allowed me to make the change I wanted to only one entry so that any fallout of the change would be minimal.  Keep in mind that all of the issues my husband proposed could come from the change were completely made up; I think that, if we were using big words, we could call it conjecture.  He argued that if I made changes that caused problems (100% made-up problems), then he would not have time to fix said imaginary problems.   

After we had come to our compromise, he said to me, “You know that you can’t expect people in the real world to agree with you and say yes to everything you want.  In the real world, people will sometimes say no, and you will have to accept it”.   

To that I responded, “This is the REAL world.  This is our home and OUR business that we started together to change our lives and the life of our son.  It’s the real world for certain.  And if I believe that something can be done better, I am going to push for it if there is not a good reason why I shouldn’t.”  A bit more discussion followed, and we actually left the exchange feeling at peace.  To this day, one week later, I have not seen or heard of any issues with the change I made.   

I did not like the idea that my husband would rather leave something done poorly than to make a change ‘just in case’ a change could cause issues to manage.  It wreaked of fear, and, in our house, we don’t make decisions in fear.  If we did, we would have never gotten married, creating a multicultural household, opened an immigration case with no lawyer and triumphed, bought a house on one income, or incorporated a business only days after receiving green cards in the height of a global pandemic.  We are eagles and eagles don’t move like chickens.  We cannot soar if we are afraid of falling.  

Can we have such high expectations of coworkers who are strangers?  Would I have been as adamant about making decisions and creating procedures that I could explain and stand behind if I was doing the work for someone else’s vision?  I think not and I am really not sure if the difference in standards is fair.  But I think the real question is how we work passionately with our partners in life without growing a business that ultimately puts our relationships at risk and destroys our families.  

Let’s dive into some guidelines that will foster success in business while also keeping us out of divorce court. 

Key Takeaways

  • Understand and respect each other’s strengths to foster productive work relationships.
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities and empower one another to contribute.
  • Choose your battles wisely. Success does not require being right.
  • Establish shared values to guide decision-making and create trust and vulnerability.
  • Maintain dedicated workspaces to increase productivity and decrease conflict.

Understand and Respect Your Partner’s True Nature

Recognizing and appreciating the inherent tendencies of each family member is a pivotal step towards fostering productive work relationships. Some may be wired for leadership, while others might excel at supporting roles or creative tasks. Some will be extremely disciplined, while others are more spontaneous and willing to make decisions and changes swiftly. The truth is that any of these characteristics can be beneficial in the right situation.

Embrace these individual strengths within your business operations instead of trying to force one another into roles that don’t suit you. Appreciate the aspects of the business that your partner or other family members can handle that you don’t want to do anyway. This appreciation can eliminate friction and make way for harmony in work to leverage the best talents of everyone involved.

When my husband and I respect one another’s nature, we have more productive conversations and pride in the business decisions we make. He does not have to be surprised at my extroverted, passionate ways, and his laid-back, patient personality does not have to get on my last nerve. We are fire and ice, yin and yang. Whether we like it or not, there will be plenty of situations that require my predisposed passion and others that require his keen ability to create calm. Together we can unlock our full potential as business owners, parents, and partners for life.

Respect Roles and Responsibilities

Every member in a family business must understand their roles. Just like a well-oiled machine, each part has its unique function. In our business, we learned this lesson rather quickly: my husband is the tech talent. He has a gift for taking apart complex devices with what seem like thousands of tiny pieces. I, on the other hand, would never even know where to start. I guess you could say that he is a technical genius, and I am his mouthpiece. I handle marketing and person-to-person sales, sit with the accountant while she tells me every single thing she has learned about life since last year, and go endlessly back and forth with the graphic designer. I generally conceive of new IRL opportunities while he makes connections in the web space among other device retailers and technicians, sourcing all of the devices and supplies we need to create profits. Each of our responsibilities and roles make the most of our natural talents and allow us to focus our efforts in the most beneficial ways.

There is nothing wrong with doing what you are good at and allowing your partner to do the same without believing that you should have a say and a role in every single part of the company. Trust that your partner knows what he is doing, and you will reap rewards. Each of us needs to know that our contributions are recognized and respected. Clearly define what each of you is responsible for accomplishing and lean into those descriptions when questions arise about the roles you play. This does not mean that you should not be flexible. Success does not always include being right.

Choose Your Battles Wisely

Do you want to be right or successful? As in marriage, business matters require the ability to choose your battles. You may be saying to yourself, ‘I know she didn’t. She just spent 3 paragraphs telling a story about being right’. But wait. I didn’t say that I optimally handled that exchange. I should have definitely let it go immediately if I wanted to save 45 minutes and a nice amount of agitation, but my husband and I agreed that it was a conversation that needed to be had… eventually.

If I wanted to, I could outline many, many examples of letting go and letting God in making decisions for our family business, but I won’t. I am perfectly content with leaving you a picture of a very pushy, really determined partner. Maybe I will share my softer side next time. Just trust me that flexibility is absolutely key to maintaining a healthy marriage while working together.

Establish and Uphold Shared Values

It is much easier to be flexible and concede in disagreements when you know that your partner shares your values, goals, and definition of what it means to be successful. Identifying and agreeing upon these things in your marriage and family should translate to the principles that will guide your business decisions and actions, even if not seamlessly at first.

This will require lots of conversations. You can decide to have them on purpose or let them happen to you when you least expect it. By clearly communicating and reinforcing your values, you can create a strong foundation for working together as a team. It’s important to be in alignment with core beliefs such as honesty, integrity, and respect for one another, and to determine what boundaries you have for projects you take or associations you engage. No assumptions should be made about the development of business partnerships and the scope of your current business practices should not be stretched without lots of research and risk-benefit analyses TOGETHER. And if prayer is your thing, include that too. There is nothing worse than crossing lines that you were not even aware were there.

Shared values keep you on the same page, or at least in the same book when it comes to making important business choices and handling conflicts. Common values build trust and trust allows the vulnerability needed to grow a business and raise a family.

Maintain Dedicated Workspaces

Shared values are necessary for building a business and a family whether in the same building or not. Luckily shared values do not have to equal shared space. But, more often than not, family businesses require you and your spouse to spend excessive amounts of time together in your home and workspaces (if they are not one in the same). If you are running your company from your home, do yourself a huge favor and create dedicated workspaces for each of you so that you have an escape, a place to focus on your contributions. Be determined to compartmentalize your business dealings such that you have dedicated space (and time) to talk shop. No more than a passing reminder of business matters should be shared in the areas of your home that are meant for play, rest, and attending to your children’s emotional needs. The very look of play spaces should remind you that work is OVER creating a clear separation between your personal and professional lives.

Use this checklist to maintain a dedicated workspace:

  • Choose a specific area in your home that will be solely used for work.
  • Organize your space in a way that promotes focus and productivity.
  • Set boundaries with your family members, letting them know that when you are in this workspace, you are not available for non-work-related activities or interruptions. (This part may fall under the category of unicorns and rainbows, but we will never know if we don’t try.)
  • Invest in the necessary equipment and technology to ensure that your workspace is equipped for success. This may include a proper desk and desktop computer, bookshelves, lighting, and perhaps a Do Not Disturb sign to use during virtual meetings.

The workshop my husband keeps is not to be tampered with for any reason. As I mentioned before, he is the technician, not me. Bothering his stacks is a cardinal sin for good reason. He is organized and deliberate concerning his work. It is not the job of the COO, that’s me, to tamper with his process.

I am currently reworking my home office to accommodate my interests and endeavors and outfitting it with the necessities of ‘my lane’. I am conceiving of the environment that will make me most productive and simultaneously calm. When I am done, I will expect that space to be respected solely as mine. Maybe that would have helped me relinquish the record-keeping battle royale. We will never know.

There is Good News

It may seem that a business would be easily integrated into the life you are building with your partner, but without respect, trust, and structure, the pitfalls can be innumerable. Despite this fact, don’t be afraid to do one of the most challenging things you will ever do with the person you have declared to love and trust the most. Strategically making space for your dispositions, gifts, and work, while compartmentalizing your business and personal affairs will allow you and your partner to create the life you want TOGETHER.

Dr. Mariksa Cadogon

Dr. Mariska Cadogon is an educator at heart with wisdom beyond her years. She has deep experience in healthcare and education. As a member of NPE she serves as Project & Accountability Manager, as well as co-facilitator. Her brilliant authenticity and boldness challenge team members and customers to rethink their actions to be congruent with their stated intentions to ensure goals are met.