When you’re not ‘family’ in a family-run business

family businessIn the flooring industry it is common to find family run shops, especially among the independent dealers. Whether it’s succession, favoritism or convenience, a family business seems like the perfect choice for flooring companies.

But what happens if you as an employee are not related to the directors, managers or other personnel with a family connection to the company? Surviving a family business without being a family requires a very different strategy than being an employee. That’s not to say that being part of a family business can’t be stressful, even if you’re somehow related to the owners. However, if you’re not related, you don’t have to relive the troubles every dinner. It is difficult for families to separate work problems from family problems. Often the two become entwined. Something decided during the day with the staff in the store can be destroyed when the family gets together for dinner in the evening.

You’ve certainly heard the expression, “Blood is thicker than water.” Simply put, family ties will always be stronger than any other relationship.

So, how do these ‘outsiders’ survive in a family business? Here are some suggestions:

Understand the hierarchy. I know several family businesses where the kids are high decision makers, but everything has to go through their parents who are in their later years. Know who has the power to make the final decisions.

Make sure it’s a cultural fit. If you want to join an existing retail business, especially at a management level, find out if the owners encourage or support an inclusive management structure. The ideal situation for an outsider might be a scenario where there is a “board of directors” made up of both family members and non-family members. This shows a willingness to keep the company neutral and listen to others who – we hope – are there for their expertise.

Be clear about your own path. What do you really want? And is it realistically achievable? Can you reach the level you want, or do you have to leave at some point? Decide how far you want to go in the business and decide if it’s feasible. If you can’t see a clear path to your own greatness, look elsewhere.

Stay in the neutral lane. Avoid getting involved in or taking sides in a family misunderstanding or dispute. The family will always win and probably protect each other no matter how much they disagree. You may also be accused of pitting one family member against another. Remember that as an outsider you may not be aware of past events. Knowing how to play office politics is extremely important, especially when families are involved. The more neutral you can be, the better. Everything else can turn around at some point and bite you in an awkward spot.

Avoid ‘stealing’ the credit. There is no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in ‘family’ and ‘hierarchy’. While it can be tempting to be in the spotlight of a personal achievement at work — especially if that achievement contributes directly to the bottom line — it’s important to frame it so that the collective’s efforts are emphasizes.

Outsiders who often outperform family members in high-level leadership positions can be seen as a threat – rightly or wrongly.


Lisbeth Calandrino has been promoting retail strategies for 20 years. Contact her at lcalandrino@nycap.rr.com to have her speak at your company or to schedule a consultation.

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