I vividly remember the day I threw caution to the wind, haphazardly disregarded what I knew of the traditional working world, quit my job in human services and began working for my family’s business. My first day on the job began with coffee and breakfast at my parents’ house. My new boss: Dad.
I am often approached by people seeking advice for one of the scariest and most rewarding of life’s road trips: working with your family in business. Would I make the same choice if I had a do-over? Absolutely. Getting into the passenger seat of the family business van was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
My advice to those approaching a similar path is to proceed with caring caution, define some guardrails for your business and your relationship, and prepare for an amazing ride.
Agree on the directions. Before any great journey, there is a road map, a set of directions, an intended place to end up and even a plan for what happens if there is a detour. Prior to that first day with my dad as my boss, we met over the course of several weeks. We discussed a ton of “what ifs.” What happens if this doesn’t work? How do we preserve our relationship as family members? How do we define that boundary between work and family time? We developed a strategy and hit the road.
Share your view as passenger. Backseat drivers—I can’t stand them. Most people I know would agree, except when they see things the driver can’t. As an outsider to the convenience-store industry, my dad wanted me to share my perspective, to challenge his thinking. Looking back, I wish I had done more of this. I was always afraid of hurting feelings, of telling my dad that his way wasn’t the best way. To engage in this type of dynamic is like driving over freshly fallen snow: The car could gain traction, or it could slide off the road and head toward irreparable damage.
One such time, I may have tested this theory in a conversation with my dad in the wrong moment (one in which you can envision the back end of the car sliding out of control). I remember hanging up the phone and telling my co-workers, “I think my dad just fired me.”
I went back to my job with my team after ending that phone conversation. What mattered was more than a paycheck: I had my own car to steer. The next day, my boss called me to make sure I came to work. I had.
The reality is that there is no safer space than family, so backseat drive as often as you need to. Your willingness to do so could change your business.
Stop and enjoy the sights. Get out of the car and enjoy time as a family. Work dynamics can be complex, at times draining, other times exhilarating—and they may just slightly annoy those in the family who don’t work with you. Spend as much time as you can being a daughter, a son, a sibling. Establish nonwork zones where you’re just cruising at an easy pace.
Be ready for your turn to drive. Succession planning can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes things don’t go as planned. My turn as the driver came unexpectedly and suddenly with not nearly as much practice as I would have liked. While I hope this is not something that becomes a reality for anyone, be prepared. Take the car out for a test drive, lead smaller projects when you can, and demonstrate your readiness and willingness to lead the big initiatives.
Work on your own leadership style often. There are people in the car with you, and their paychecks depend on your driving skills, your ability to make sure they don’t feel like grabbing those handles overhead. Chances are, they are already looking at you and coming up with their own assumptions about your leadership ability. Find your allies, the people who can help with directions when you get lost; they are out there, and they are vested in the bigger picture. Those people you feel that you have to prove yourself to? You don’t. Give it your best shot and move on. There will always be a negative passenger or two, those who think they should be driving instead of you. Coax them along if you can. If not, perhaps it’s time for them to find another ride. The right people are out there and are eager to fill those seats.
Don’t look back. The rearview mirror is small for a reason, yet it is in the center of your windshield. I reflect fondly on my time working with my dad on his life’s work. It has now become mine. I only wish I had more time as a passenger.
Family business is special. If you happen to be lucky enough to have the opportunity, fasten your seatbelt and don’t look back.
Lisa Dell’Alba is president and CEO of Square One Markets Inc. Reach her at email@example.com.
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