I was recently asked, “what are the pros and cons of working in a family business.” Pausing for a second, I responded, “that it’s a family business.” I added that I did not mean to be ‘flip’ in responding, but meant instead that family businesses are too complex for that question to be answered in a few sentences.
Understanding the context in which such a question is being asked is important. In addressing it I find myself quoting the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anne Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I want to know the experience of the person asking it.
A family business operates on interactions between two systems. The family constitutes one system. The business constitutes the other. Each has its own values. Each demands recognition of its values. Taking goals for example, those of a family are thought about in terms of the development and support of its members. Business goals are thought of in terms of profits, revenues, efficiency and growth. In the family system, evaluation or reward of family members is based on who they are. Effort counts, but there is unconditional love and support. Evaluation within the business is based on performance and results. On these criteria, individuals are likely to be promoted or terminated.
Returning to the question of pros and cons, I have come to believe these depend to a large degree on the happiness of the family. I have seen this reflected in widely differing attitudes—a family-business member telling me that she could not imagine working anywhere else but in the family business; a second-generation family business owner saying that he did not want his children working in the business because “he loved them too much.”