Family_business Uh, oh.
A real letter from a real person. Whoda thunk?

Here goes…

Uh, Artie?
Do you think family and business are a good mix?
— Louise [not her real name]

Uh, Louise.
Funny, but I always react the same way when I hear someone is working with his or her wife, sibling, parent or child. I immediately imagine all sorts of nepotism, intergenerational warfare, and business conversations spilling onto the dinner table or bedroom pillow.

To be sure, that happens. We’ve all heard horror stories, when both the business and the family were brought down by their combination.

But let’s wait a minute. It doesn’t matter what happens in other families and other businesses. All you really care about is yours.

So, do family and business mix well?
The answer depends on your answers to the following:

1. Are you able to be with family all day, every day?

2. Can you rise above family loyalty to communicate fairly and professionally with all co-workers without regard to their familial relationships?

They’re hard questions. Answer them every day.

In my own experience, I’ve worked twice with family.

  • My father worked as the Executive In Residence at Young Isaac. It was a low stress assignment, so there wasn’t really any opportunity for conflict. A former, long-time stockbroker, he was just learning the business (but soon died, before he mastered it). I will always remember him standing in the agency’s lobby waiting to join a group going to a radio taping. He was telling everyone who passed him, beaming, "I’m going to a television shoot. I’m going to a television shoot." Tom Bedway, creative director, passed him and corrected him gently, "Art, we’re going to a radio taping." My father immediately adapted his cheerful chant: "I’m going to a radio taping. I’m going to a radio taping."
  • More significantly, my wife served as our agency bookkeeper for years. We didn’t get to go to lunch as often I wish we had, but it was nice having the love of my life so nearby all day. People (outside the agency) often asked, "How is it working with your wife?" Their tone suggested that they thought it might be terrible. I always answered, "We’re married. Working together is the least significant aspect of our relationship." That’s how I see it: how could I marry someone, but not want to work with her?   

There is, however, a great reason
not to work with family: portfolio theory.

That is, all the eggs are in one basket. If business turns sour, might it spoil the family? And, if the family turns sour, might it spoil the business? The answer is, all too often, yes. So we have to add a third question:

3. Is your family so strong and is your business so strong that you are willing to risk letting the weaker of the two define your life?

Oh, two more thoughts.
First, make sure family can resign from the business without resigning from the family.

In my wife’s case, she asked to resign five times before I let her leave the business. I kept saying, "We can work it out"— and we would make some small accommodation in her work assignment. She finally said, "Artie, I don’t want to work it out. I want out." Oh.

Secondly, it helped us to partition the conversations. We talked about work at the office. We talked about everything else at home. And, failing that separation, my wife and I set a time limit: no business talk after 8 p.m.

— Artie

Send your questions to Uh, Artie?