This summer I attended a luncheon for family business owners and their advisors. It was an excellent event. The nationally known speaker offered constructive ways to think about family business ownership and governance, the audience was very engaged, and—miracle of miracles—the food was good!
Twice, though, I heard a phrase that isn’t resting well with me, even after thinking about it for these many months. I can’t remember if the guest speaker was the first to say it, or whether both mentions came from the audience. I may not even have heard the phrase correctly. Whatever the case, there was a finality and an acceptance about the statement that made me think it could represent a shared yet potentially troubling paradigm within the field of family enterprise: Take care of the business and the business will take care of the family.
On its face, this seems like a really solid maxim. But like most maxims, it can only go so far. One doesn’t have to think too hard to find a few examples where the maxim doesn’t hold. In fact, I can think of more instances where the maxim is not true than where it is:
- The business is growing exponentially, but the sibling–owners are suing one another.
- The business is expanding into new markets yet the principals’ marriage is dissolving.
- The business is generating steady revenue yet the principals’ children—or the principals themselves—abuse drugs or alcohol.
- The business has not only made it to GEN3 but is bringing on GEN4, yet the family members still involved in the business despise one another and those not involved in operations are estranged.
So yes, the family’s financial stability does not seem to be in question, which may be what the speakers meant when they said, “The business will take care of the family.” But who wants to live in a situation where financial stability and business longevity are the primary measures of a family’s success?
Despite the maxim being an assertion of strength, the statement is incomplete. Making it the family (business) mantra could actually introduce fragility into both systems.
There’s a concept in Bowen Family Systems Theory called fusion. It describes what happens when two people in an emotionally important relationship in effect, become one. They think, act, and behave as one person; one individual loses “self” to the other. This phenomenon can happen in any emotionally significant relationship, but it’s most often and easily seen in marriage. A husband will give up self, foregoing his personal or professional goals for the benefit of his wife, or vice versa. We’re not talking about individual choices and compromises that happen in any relationship; we’re talking about an emotionally driven process that repeats itself over a long period of time, so long that it becomes a pattern, a habit. An automatic way of being. While it sounds incredibly romantic to be so close to the one you love, and selflessly generous to give up your dreams so your partner can pursue theirs, when this pattern becomes chronic and uni-directional, it can lead to conflict, broken relationships, physical illness, and emotional distress.
Fusion can happen between two individuals. I believe it can also happen between a family and their business. For example, a family may become so identified with their business that one can’t think of one without the other. Or the family firm is the only thing holding the family together; without it, the family members have nothing in common and no reason to be together.
Who can deny that the relationship between a family and their business is an emotionally significant one? The tension between doing what is best for the family and best for the business is tremendous under any circumstance. But when the owners and managers of a business—and their advisors—operate under this “take care of the business and the business will take care of the family” principle, the weight shifts disproportionately in favor of the business and the family risks becoming subsumed to their work. After all, “the business comes first.”
Of course, it can be just as dangerous to say the family comes first and to automatically defer to whatever is (or seems) best for the family. When this happens, business performance suffers and the business becomes weak, eventually becoming susceptible to death or decline. Correcting this is, I believe, part of the thinking behind the somewhat recent distinction being made between “family business” and “business family.” A family business puts family relationships first giving second place to the business; a business family prioritizes the business(es) and believes family harmony will be a happy byproduct of smooth-running operations. Positive intent in both cases, but intent does not always prevent the problem. Both a “family business” and a “business family” can experience fusion.
So how does one move forward?
First, it’s important to recognize that every way people organize themselves—families, businesses, communities, countries—has an emotional component. By emotional, I don’t mean feelings-oriented, although feelings are part of any human system. Rather, by emotional I mean that some behavior is automatic—put into motion without conscious thought. Members of family businesses (and business families) can start by acknowledging that there are patterns operating outside of everyone’s awareness that are driving behavior. Work to identify them so the patterns can be interrupted.
Another step is to increase one’s level of differentiation. In Bowen theory circles, we talk about a concept called differentiation of self. The phrase itself is a mouthful and I won’t be able to give the concept justice in this short blog post, but among other things, differentiation of self respects that in a marriage, one recognizes that their partner is their own person. They have their own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and goals that do not necessarily align perfectly with yours. While you may “get it” intellectually, you may not know it emotionally, and so you react, you cajole, you manipulate, you dip into any of a thousand unproductive behaviors, and most often do so automatically.
Bowen said, counterintuitively, that much of his work with couples was to help each individual become more separate so they could be more together.
The same would be true in a relationship between a family and its business. One could think of the family—as a unit—as being its own “person,” with its own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and goals. One could also respect each member of the family as being their own person, with their own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and goals. And, finally, one could think of the business as being its own “person,” with its own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and goals.
And how does this get lived out in practice? How do we help the family, the members, the business be more separate so they can be more together? Well, that’s where the real work is.