Making Family Business Work by Marilyn Edelson

Family businesses are wonderful and wonderfully complex. On one hand, they are the backbone of big international businesses (think Ford, Gucci, Hilton and Perdue to name a few) as well as small, local businesses, but often they are fraught with issues and conflicts as complicated as family life and business by themselves. While 80% of U.S. companies are family-owned, keeping them in the family has been shown to pose a serious threat and few survive the 3rd generation. The major issues: managing wealth, succession planning, divorce and conflict amongst family members. One book on the subject is aptly called “Family Wars.” Less emphasized, but equally important, women get fewer opportunities and when they do lead family businesses, those businesses tend to be less profitable than those owned by their male counterparts.

As a family therapist cum consultant and business coach, family businesses were a natural place for me to bring all of my training to the table. I quickly learned how challenging working with family businesses could be. Not only do you need to have expertise in working with family dynamics and knowledge of business but, I learned, it could come in handy to know how to herd cats. That’s where Best Year Yet® came in. Best Year Yet® provided the structure and accountability to help focus families on getting the job done in a way I could not on my own.

Best Year Yet® has been useful to my clients in three ways—as a team strategic planning vehicle with business leaders (family and non-family), family council members only and with individuals in the family business seeking empowerment in their roles.

A well-established family business in marketing was struggling with the impact of the economy on a changing industry. The founder parents were protective of their brand and name and neither trusted their children nor non-family employees to maintain their high level of work ethic and good reputation. The Best Year Yet team plan helped them narrow their focus and make crucial decisions about moving forward as a smaller but still reputable firm.

A small company in the housing industry, also feeling the effects of the economy, was run by dad and three sons who could not get along and work under the same roof; however, downsizing demanded they all re-locate to the same site. A Best Year Yet plan for five family members – the four men and mother who also worked in the business – clarified roles and gave each member an arena of responsibility so they would not step on each others’ toes. Each one also did their own individual Best Year Yet plan, leading them to produce excellent results in each of the new areas. Their anger and hostility is now reduced to locker room teasing and dad is now able to foresee a day when he can hand the business over to them and it will succeed.

A female successor – one of several daughters and the only one working in the business – came to me looking to find her right place in the business and learn to better balance her work and family life. She had two choices – to stay in the division she was in, closer to home and where she felt better accepted by staff, or to move to the division where there might be greater financial opportunity but she felt the fit would not be a good one for her. Doing her Best Year Yet plan helped her chunk down her goals into smaller pieces, including letting her father know her specific long-term interests and ideas for growing the business and getting more involved in the larger business community while she remained at the current division. Broadening her exposure to other successful business women is providing the confidence to eventually take over both divisions.

These examples show how the flexibility of Best Year Yet lends itself to working at the three levels of intervention family businesses can require – individual (coaching and counseling), interactional (team building and family council) and systemic (strategic planning and governance). But, best of all, it helps the coach and consultant provide the family and business a road map for the work ahead.

About Marilyn:

Marilyn Edelson

Marilyn Edelson is an International Coach Federation master certified coach (MCC) who works with entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, family businesses and healthcare providers on creating the results they want. She has been a Best Year Yet program leader since 2002.

She is author of recently published, Values-based Coaching: A Guide for Social Workers and other Human Service Providers (NASW Press, 2010).