Perspectives from ISB

“What’s wrong — is the company going bankrupt? Are we being sold?” For Charlie, who had joined his family’s bakery business two years after getting his MBA and earning his stripes at another company, this question from the plant manager came out of the blue.

He was eager to earn his colleagues’ respect, rather than relying on his family name to provide it. So he went to great lengths to be just “one of the gang” in every possible way. This included parking in the back of the building and walking through the production plant, rather than zipping into the reserved space he’d been provided near the executive offices in the front.

It turns out, seven people had gone to the plant manager after seeing Charlie arrive that morning with a sour look on his face. They all wanted to know: Was something bad about to happen? The scowl had nothing to do with work, but until then it had not dawned on Charlie how closely people were watching him. When your family’s name is on the door, you will never just be one of the gang — and everything you do could be fodder for the office rumor mill.

The family business leaders we work with have echoed Charlie’s experience. They have learned that their actions — positive and negative — are amplified because of their status as owners (or owners-to-be) of the company. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Here are some of the most common traps we’ve seen family business members fall into, and how to avoid them.

Working at the company for the wrong reasons. If family members act as if they are there only to collect a paycheck, or because they have nowhere else to go, it sends a signal that all employees should push to get as much for themselves as they can. It’s better to convey that you are interested in the business.

Expecting promotions without putting in the work. When family members start at a level that is beyond their qualifications, or are promoted much faster than deserved, other employees are more likely to focus on patronage rather than performance as they look to climb the ladder.

Working around the chain of command to get special treatment. Too often, family members take advantage of their access to senior members of the firm, seeing the rules as malleable and looking for ways around them. Instead, work through the chain of command, don’t ask for special treatment by relatives in senior positions, and abide by policies for vacation days, expenses, and office hours.

Blurring the boundaries between home and work environments. Office politics in family businesses are further complicated when members bring their family dynamics into the business. It’s important to set clear boundaries within the workplace.

Working in your family’s business can bring enormous reward, but it also carries a lot of responsibility. As Charlie learned, if you work harder than other employees, are willing to learn from the shop floor up, and treat your privilege with modesty, you’re more likely to earn the respect of your colleagues and keep office politics in check.

Source: Baron, Josh., November 6, 2017,