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The essential rules for running a successful family business


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Edifa - published on 10/27/20

Experts weigh in on how (and whether) to work with family members.

Working with a loved one can be extremely complicated. “You don’t talk to your siblings in the same way you talk to employees,” says Armelle, who took over her father’s business along with her other siblings. “There are things that go unsaid, and the resulting atmosphere can be very unhealthy. It directly affects the family.” The young woman chose to jump ship six months ago. “I had no future in the company and the things they would talk about day after day finally got to be too much for me,” she says.

Working with your parents, children, spouse, siblings, is not always easy. How do you keep the best of family ties… and avoid the worst?

The importance of thinking it through before taking the plunge

Jealousy, frustration, differing strategies, strong emotional involvement. “It is essential to be able to analyze the situation without being trapped by the emotional dimension,” warns Marie-Christine Bernard, a consecrated laywoman, coach, and theologian specializing in anthropology. The people we make company decisions with end up being the ones we share the Christmas dinner with. “Intertwining private and professional worlds can be worrisome for those who are committed to working with loved ones.”

Vianney and Laure d’Alançon embarked on the adventure a few years ago. At 25 and 27 respectively, this young couple heads a jewelry boutique, founded only four months after they got married. “We gave ourselves a month to see if we could work together,” they say. The experience is proving conclusive with the opening of new boutiques. However, Laure confides that she was “not very open” to her husband’s proposal to set up a business together. “We both have a rather strong personality. I told myself that a solid day-to-day relationship requires that we have the same way of working, of looking at things. Anticipating this, I was a little afraid.” Analysis and reflection are essential.

Sharing tasks: Another essential

Marie-Christine Bernard always encourages the people she meets “to set up their businesses, to reinvent employment,” but she did advise one couple to postpone their project. “It was a ‘false’ good idea. They were too young and had to mature in their respective professions before they could get started.” The division of labor both within the company and at home is essential. It is imperative to agree in advance on who will take care of what in terms of domestic life and childcare, working hours, how the space in the home is organized when the company office is there. This is often more complicated than in a company in which there are no family ties.”

When his father suggested thatJohn join the small family business, the young man had just put his psychology studies on hold and was looking for a new direction. The opportunity was tempting, the work interesting and varied. However, John asked for time to think it over: “I’m a bit lazy by nature, I knew that working with my dad would require me to change my basic style. John did end up signing the contract, basically for “something to do.” Nearly two years later, he took a BTS business training course and discovered an unexpected interest in this company founded by his grandfather. His fears quickly faded. His rigor and involvement in the company replaced his former teenage laziness. “I had to prove myself very quickly, to my dad, the boss, and the employees,” concedes the young man. “Actually, I had to invest even more than the others, because I am the boss’s son. I have to earn my place in the eyes of the others, who had to send in a CV and go for interviews.” By following up with appropriate studies, John also proves to his father that he is trustworthy and capable of investing himself: “Dad told me that if I wanted to take over from him, I had to get a degree. He will only let me take over the company if I have the skills, the ability and the desire.”

Nepotism, the enemy that lurks in every family business

Fears fade as trust between relatives grows, as professionalism is no longer questioned. For Dr. Jacques-Antoine Malarewicz, psychiatrist and business consultant, nepotism is precisely the “great risk” that threatens any family business. “The management of the company requires clarity, and this is what is at stake for the manager.” When someone close to you proves to be incompetent, “the logical thing is for them to leave the company, even if they are a family member.” Bertrand Cuny, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Vygon, agrees that a relative must be recruited for his or her skills. If the company is now run by the son-in-law of its founder, it is because he has the capabilities. “The family is responsible for the company and must consider that any dismissal is a failure,” says Cuny. “Its first duty is to find a motivated and competent manager. If this person belongs to the family, we can assume that they will be motivated, but that does not mean they are competent!”

Thus, those who work with relatives all say the same thing: the golden rule is to separate the private sphere from the professional sphere. This is a real challenge. It is a basis from which all the recommendations that are subsequently decided upon are derived. Laure and Vianney immediately set this principle: “We don’t talk about work in the evening! And we try not to talk about what concerns us personally in the office.” Like them, John and his father don’t talk about company matters in front of the rest of the family. Each relies on the other’s discretion. And it is the same in Bertrand Cuny’s family, several members of which are shareholders. Arnould d’Hautefeuille, a consultant for family businesses, even recommends, if at all possible, “not to work directly with a member of the family as your boss or your employee for your first job.” Your competence will be questioned more vigorously. This is why John is monitored on a daily basis by the workshop manager, and not by his father: “The employer/employee relationship is less direct.”

Looking to the Gospel to inspire management

This daily proximity calls for prudence and discretion on the part of the members of the same family. Vianney d’Alançon concedes: “We knew it was important to establish certain norms between us. When you work as a couple, you have to avoid tension at all costs. And set aside our excessive personal ambitions.” Both great communicators, Laure and her husband have learned to adjust the way they work. Marie-Christine Bernard particularly appreciates accompanying “married Christians for whom the professional adventure is part of the couple’s adventure.” For Bernard, a seasoned specialist in the human and corporate world, “there is a real desire for consistency between their desire for mutual loyalty, continuation and their commitment to their city through their work.”

For many Catholics who work in family businesses, faith is a pillar. It accompanies each one in their development, in maintaining an appropriate attitude. It is a way of being that consists of “helping each other progress, without hurting each other, while remaining true,” according to Bernard. The Gospel applied to business remains the best source of management advice you can find with a humanistic vision.

Ariane Lecointre-Cloix

Gianna Molla

Read more:
5 Saints show us how to balance work and family life

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