Trapped in the Family Business: 
Diagnosis and treatment
January 2009
Trapped in the Family Business?!?!?!....

For some, working in the family business may be the best thing that has ever happened.  It could mean:
  • a stronger, more passionate connection to your work,
  • the ability to set your own professional goals,
  • freedom from the anxiety of random corporate downsizings,
  • or any number of other positive attributes
However, for others, the family business is a long-term sentence with absolutely no chance of "time off for good behavior."  The negative far outweighs the positive.  For these individuals:
  • taking time off is virtually impossible
  • there is a lack of clear vision and shared values
  • work roles are not clearly defined, leading to burnout
  • there is a surprising lack of communication about key business matters
  • feeling trapped and incapable of escape is the norm
Can anything be done for someone trapped in the
family business??

Consider the following three step approach that can help simplify this incredibly complex situation:

STEP ONE: How did I get here?
By thinking about the path that led to feeling trapped in the family business, various truths can come to light.  For example:
 - Was I gently (or not so gently) nudged into working here?
 - Was I helping out during a crisis that turned into a fulltime responsibility?
 - Were other career options ever discussed in my family?
 - Have I ever considered who would take my place when I retire?
 - Was it always just assumed that I would work here?
-  Did I need a job and this was the easiest solution?
- Is it clear that my family relationships would be damaged beyond repair if I chose not to work in the family business?

With this information, you will shed light on key issues that led to joining and staying in the family business, issues that may or may not get in your way when considering a potential exit strategy.
light bulb STEP TWO: Taking a closer look
The big question: can I make this work or should I move on? 

This is a difficult question to answer without the second step in this process: a clear, accurate, and comprehensive understanding of:
  1. personality style (strengths and weaknesses),
  2. values and motivators,
  3. emotional and social preferences, and
  4. professional/career vision
Once you have this information, you can step back and take an objective look at your family business and your current role.  Then ask yourself:
  1. Can changes be made to this role so its a better fit for who I am and what I want?
  2. Are there other places in the business that might provide a better, more satisfying career for me?
  3. Have I done everything I can and its simply time to move on?
STEP THREE: Writing the next chapter
The good news is that STEP TWO will provide you with a strong foundation whether you stay in the family business or if you move on.  The key here is "30,000 foot" planning following by small, manageable action steps.

Perhaps the small steps involve reaching out to colleagues to discuss your long-term vision.  Or maybe its talking to key family members about trying to redefine your role.  Whatever the ultimate vision, you won't get there without taking small steps.  To write the next chapter, you start with the first line.  To run the marathon, you finish the first mile.
What now?

Hopefully this brief overview will be helpful to you, a member of your family, a colleague, or a client.  Click here to forward it.

If you would like more information on how I can help, let me know.

--Michael Klein
Success Story

Bill and Sally both work in the family business.  While Bill had always dreamed about running the business (he bought the copmany after working in it fas a manager for 20 years), Sally accidentally found herself in the business when she was laid off at her other job.  Unsure of their ability to work together, as well as Sally's lack of clarity in her role, their financial advisor recommended that both Bill and Sally complete an assessment process to enhance their ability to determine what they each should be doing to maximize their business success while keeping their marriage intact.

After completing a brief on-line assessment process, coupled with 1-on-1 feedback sessions, it became clear to Sally that this business could be a wonderful opportunity for her if she defined her role clearly based on her skills and interests as well as business needs - spending less time on the operations part of the business and more time using her creativity in marketing.  It also became clear that Bill could utilize his skills and personality in expanding the work he does with the loyal customer base he developed over his many years of working in the business.

In short, the assessment process did the following for Sally and Bill:
  • clarified their individual strengths and weaknesses (blindspots) in managing the business
  • increased their confidence that they could make the business work while staying happily married
  • defined the small steps needed to make the business a place where both Sally and Bill were happy, satisfied, and successful.