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Successful Boundaries Make Successful Family Businesses

By Expert Author: Ronnie Sweet

George loved his business. He ran a successful contract manufacturing shop, was good at landing new customers in new markets, and followed the family footsteps. After a number of years of hiring out the office administration of his shop, he and his wife, Katie, decided to have her become involved in the operation. She was good at maintaining client relationships, completing the administrative tasks and helping in all the ways possible.

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Both George and Katie were busy all day long and didn’t take time during the day to discuss business matters. As all business owners know, it is the little things that can be the difference between peace and frustration in the daily life of business. Yet it is the little things that often don’t get addressed until they are no longer little things.

Katie wanted to start regular weekly meetings with George to discuss the business and often tried to have these discussions once they both arrived at home. George, however, did a great job (better than most) of leaving business at the office. Katie figured, what better time than during the evening after dinner, when the kids were doing their homework or engaging in other activities, to have the office discussions? The result was friction as they both dug in their heels.

Fortunately for them, after a few months of back-and-forth discussion, they came to an agreement to go out to lunch every other week — just the two of them — to discuss business. This allowed George and Katie to address the issues of the shop during the day and enabled them to grow their business.

The Importance of Boundaries

Boundaries are probably the most important aspect of running a successful family business without destroying relationships. They don’t ensure one or both parties won’t overstep, but at least they are drawn. Boundaries are required in many areas, including between home and work, among roles within the business, and between family members and employees.

Establish early on, or now if you are already in business, how you want to operate. One couple who owned a business had a routine of talking about any issue, challenge, and opportunity during the drive home — either together or separately on the phone. However, when they walked through the door, their focus was on the family, and no business was discussed.

“I often went home from the office earlier than my husband,” the wife commented. “He would call me on the way home, and we would discuss the day. This allowed me to have a conversation with him, without him seeing the look on my face and my body language. This freedom allowed me to shake it off, get it out, and move on. Our commute was about a half-hour, so it was a good time to be productive. This also allowed me to look forward to his arrival home and the transition from business owners to a family.”

That type of boundary system may not work for everyone. It did for them, and 40 years of marriage were testament to that fact. The important aspect is they created a boundary. They created a communication process that worked. What is your process?

Roles and Responsibilities

Establish clear boundaries through roles and responsibilities for all family members involved in the business. Here is the way to delineate the successful family business.

Each employee — family member or not — must have his or her areas of responsibility that are defined clearly to everyone — both within the family and outside.

When there is a disagreement between two family members, it should not be handled in front of the team (or customers, for that matter). When the resolution is defined, the person responsible for the specific area must be the one to address the change, thereby reestablishing his or her authority. The attitude in which the resolution is communicated is paramount. Should either party show anything but unified support, division and disintegration can occur.

Successful family businesses usually do not combine the two environments. They work hard to keep things separate. Each party in the business knows what is acceptable and what isn’t, and everyone sticks to this boundary as much as possible.

Respect is absolutely critical for successful boundaries. You might not agree with what the other party wants for a boundary, but you must respect the desires. At least try the boundary; business is all about experimenting with new ideas, and boundaries can be an area in which to experiment. One person may not like mornings; the other loves them but hates nights. Sit down and talk about it and create flexibility where possible.

family business

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