How To Succeed As An Outsider In A Family Owned Business

I’ve had the chance to work in three family owned businesses - one a startup and the other two with several hundred million dollars in revenue.  As a result, I’ve gleaned insights about those environments and how they are different from traditional companies.  There are some distinct nuances of family businesses that all outsiders should understand to successfully manage the frequently murky matrix of business and family interests there.  This isn’t meant to sour anyone from working in a family business.  They can be wonderfully fulfilling places to be.  They are just different and outsiders need to understand how:


- In traditional companies, even though office politics can be heavy and strong company cultures can develop, the business is usually the ultimate motivator.  People may vie for resources and personal power, and turf wars can exist - but they typically do so to garner the ability to make a bigger impact on the business and therefore reap a greater share of the spoils of high performance.  In family owned companies,  it is not uncommon that personal/family agendas are equal or greater than business ones.  Outsiders must be very sensitive to the overall company culture and what drives it and the behaviors of employees - both in the family and out.

- It doesn’t matter what your title is, your role - as an outsider - is always subordinate to family connections, even those with lesser positions in the company.  You may be the president, and a family member may be half your age and an intern, but - in many instances - guess who has the real power?


- There is usually a public effort to acknowledge formal business roles within a company, but don’t be confused about the way influence and power really works.  As an outsider, you are a 'hired hand' and will probably never really be on the inside.  You can have a wonderfully prosperous and fulfilling career there, but you’ve got to be OK with that fact.


- You will most likely never win a public battle with a family member in the company so avoid them at all costs.  Even if it seems like you’re winning, you’re not really winning.  In fact, the more you think you’re winning, the more you’re actually losing.


-  It’s not always ‘the business’ that drives the business.  There can be a complex ecosystem of relationships that develop at a family owned company; many times they perpetuate incentives and behaviors around pleasing the family members - which may or may not always be purely about objective business performance.  




- Beyond org charts and titles, do your best to decipher how things really get done and how power and influence are really wielded at the company.  Most likely the answers are not obvious and lie somewhat beneath the surface.   Most people focus somewhat singularly on doing their job.  As an outsider, to be most successful you've got to be sensitive to these cultural and family nuances.


- In the interview process, or as early on as you can, try to glean what role the family/company wants you to play; not just what job you will perform, but what role they want you to play.   This can be an issue because of the sometimes confusing blend of business and personal agendas in play.


-  Don’t ever cross the line and think you’re an insider or that your title can trump the bond of family in their own company.   In your interactions with more junior family members, always give them the level of respect that you do to the primary owners.

- As quickly as you can, make a big splash with a positive impact to the company. Close a big deal.  Launch a fantastic new product.  Recruit a superstar.  Win a big industry award.  Etc.  The quicker you can establish that you bring significant value to the company - the easier your path will be.  


-  Family owned businesses tend to operate more collaboratively than others. In a family owned business, if a junior person happens to also be a family member, they naturally get far greater consideration (and air time) than they might otherwise deserve.  This leads to an overall culture of collaboration  - where decisions are frequently made by democratic consensus.  As a result, as an outsider - the more senior you are - the more important to think about ‘spreading influence’ than ‘wielding power’.  You, know doubt, have power, but you will get so much more done and your longevity will be so much longer in a family owned business if you leverage your power to spread influence rather than act in anything resembling an autocratic way.


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Tags: business, companies, entrepreneurship, family, leadership, owned, small, smb


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