To Join or not to Join the Family Business?

I am often asked for advice from young family members as to whether they should join their family business, writes Family Business Advisor, Juliette Johnson.

They often hope for reassuring “yes” or “no” guidance, but as with almost all issues in the richly complex world of family business, the only truthful response is, “It depends…”.

What is certainly true is that entering the family business is not right for everybody.

For some, it feels like a privilege and a wonderful opportunity to contribute to a proud tradition of family enterprise; for others, history and expectation weigh them down, and working for the company becomes an unhappy burden.

I see an alarming number of people ‘trapped’ in their family businesses, having joined at a young age because they didn’t seem to have any other options, or because they thought they would have an easy ride, or, worse still, because they felt it was their duty to be there.

Carefully weighing up the pros and cons of joining is crucial, because living out a flawed decision can be traumatic and damaging, and the chances of backtracking from a bad choice will become steadily more difficult.

By the time individuals realise they have entered the family firm for the wrong reasons, it may be too late to acquire the skills and confidence they’ll need to make a new start in a job that is personally satisfying.

Also, emotional pressures from the senior generation looking to implement their succession plan will make it even harder to leave.

The starting point for an answer to all this lies in realising that the decision whether or not to join is multi-layered – it must be right for the individual concerned, for the senior generation, for other family members in the business and for the business itself. Faced with all this complexity, next-generation family members need to do some serious soul-searching:

  • What is my motivation? Does the family business offer the prospect of a satisfying and worthwhile career? Am I joining for the right reasons – e.g. do I maybe see it as a “soft option”, or am I being propelled into the job by family pressures?
  • How do I get on with my family? Will I be able to work with them day-to-day, and will I live up to their expectations? Can I establish working relationships with my brothers and sisters, or will there be too much competition and conflict?
  • Will I be able to make a contribution? What skills can I bring to the business – technical and interpersonal? Should I get extra qualifications or experience? I know my arrival will probably be treated with scepticism by non-family employees, so will I be able to “up my game” to counter this, or will I always be working in the shadow of my predecessors?
  • What are the company’s prospects? How do the commercial strengths and weaknesses of our family business stack up? What are the growth prospects for the industry? What is the family’s vision for the business?
  • What are my long-term plans and ambitions? Do I want to run the business some day? Am I equipped for leadership? What does my development look like? What support will I be given?

Having the opportunity to experience the business before fully committing will help answer many of these questions, laying the ground work for a considered decision.

Some companies create structured programmes that allow young family members at different educational stages to sample the family business working environment, from holiday jobs to gap year internship programmes.

In laying down rules for these schemes, it’s made clear that they involve no commitment on either side – an important two-way message, because the schemes also help companies assess the quality of the next generation.

But imaginative arrangements like this should not be allowed to distract attention from the golden rule – that young family members should ideally go and obtain outside work experience before deciding whether the family business is right for them.

When I speak to the senior generation in family firms, who often joined from a young age, they are unanimous in wishing they’d worked somewhere else first. Working outside helps young people develop an objective view of their abilities and talents. I

It builds confidence, builds a better CV, introduces new ideas and learning, and – very importantly – it helps foster legitimacy and credibility among those more sceptical non-family employees.

So there really is no simple answer to this apparently simple question.

Each young family member will have to make their own, well considered and intelligent decision about whether entering the family business is right for them. They need to take the time to understand their personal motivations, assess their potential contribution and evaluate their career prospects.

They need to make a cool analysis based on issues like suitability, feasibility, commitment and passion, not the expectations of others.

Most importantly in making the decision of whether or not to join, they need to be clear that entering the family business is an opportunity, not a moral duty and certainly not a birth right.

Juliette Johnson is the Founder of Juliette Johnson Consultancy.