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When you've been asked to join the family business


Mother: Jon, we've given this lots of thought, and your Dad and I are really hoping that you'll join your sister, Jackie, and us in the family business.

Father: This is one of my greatest dreams come true! And I'm sure you're as excited as I was when I joined my parents. So, what do you think, son?

Son: Well, I can't say that I'm too surprised. I did work in the store summers and school vacations just like Jackie did, and now my college graduation is only a few months away. I, uh, guess it makes sense. It's sort of what I always expected, too. It's just that I've got, well, some concerns, and I guess I'd like to think about it some more...

So, Jon begins to reflect: "Looks like the real world is closing in fast. They probably want me to start right after graduation. No summer vacation? What will my job be? What kind of hours? Week-ends, too? But my friends are so important to me. Will I have to blow them off? What kind of money will I make? And who's going to be my boss?"

And, as Jon thinks a bit further... "They've all given this a lot of thought. That means they have some 'expectations' of me. I wonder what they are. And how does my sister feel? What does she expect? What does the future look like? Is this going to be our business some day? My dad says this is 'one of his greatest dreams.' That makes me feel wanted, alright, but it also puts pressure on me, like I'd be letting him down if I said 'no.' But why am I even questioning all this? It's kind of like I've been doing it all my life. It's the only job I know, the only one I've ever had. I guess it's okay. Maybe I've just got some normal jitters. But I sure wish there were someone I could talk to."

Recognizing Jon's situation, perhaps we can help him sort out three main concerns: first, whether or not to join the family business; second, how best to enter the family business; and third, a look at the longer term future.

1. To join or not to join...

  • We need to let Jon know that he is not alone. There are thousands of young adults out there right now, whom the "real world" will indeed welcome very soon. It is okay for Jon to be unsure and have some second doubts. A career choice is a major, long term commitment. "Growing up" on the one hand, may mean job, car, apartment, and independence. But it also means "the end of being a kid," less free time, work on week-ends, insurance bills, rent payments, and separation from parents. Jon's instincts are correct. He does need time to reflect a bit, to assess his own skills, examine his career and personal goals, family relationships and communication styles, and explore other options.
  • Jon might want to clarify any unstated "expectations" with other family members to avoid ambiguity and inappropriate assumptions so roles and responsibilities for all family members in the business are clear.
  • Jon and his dad need to talk about his dad's experience in joining his parents a generation ago. While Jon may decide to join the family business, he surely does not want to build a career out of guilt for fear of letting his dad down.
  • Jon might also explore with his sister, Jackie, what it was like for her when she came into the family business and how she feels now about his coming in. Jon could ask Jackie for her advice and share with her some of his concerns. Maybe there are other young people in business with their families with whom Jon could speak. Participation in local trade associations provides a natural networking and support opportunity for young recruits.
2. Once a decision to enter the family business has been made...
  • If Jon has not already done so, we encourage him to spend at least a couple of years working elsewhere before joining the family business. This will give him the much needed chance to make some mistakes in a more objective setting, earn some promotions and report to different bosses. He will then be able to bring even greater knowledge, experience and a personal sense of achievement into the family firm.
  • When Jon does enter the family business, we encourage him to expect a "competitive salary," one that would be paid to a non-family employee performing in a similar capacity. Why? Because less is unfair and more, too soon in his career, would give Jon golden handcuffs. It could tie him to a job he might neither like nor be suited for, but could not afford to leave.
  • When it comes to a boss, we encourage Jon to report to someone other than a family member for a while. This will help provide him with more objective feedback and evaluation. It will also help distance the 'family emotions' from the 'business criticism.'
3. And about the longer range future...
  • Though Jon's parents may not have all their estate, business ownership transfer and leadership succession plans in perfect order, it is not unusual for young adults to be wondering what their parents have in mind. It is also very difficult for children to raise such questions to their parents because of the obvious implications of their deaths. Family business meetings and references to articles like this can serve vehicles for raising such topics for discussion.
  • An instant transition from kid to adult, from student to working person, from son to employee is tough enough to contemplate, let alone execute. Jon will need lots of support and conversation with his family and friends to help make the transition a smooth one. Many things can be done to excess. But in a family business, "communication" does not seem to be one of them!
Transition Consulting Group is a family owned business led by father-son team Paul and David Karofsky. Both offer decades of first-hand and professional experience in Family Business consulting, coaching, mentoring, and leadership.

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