If I were to ask everyone in my cycling group which behaviours were ok in the workplace and which ones weren’t, I would get a lot of different responses. Chances are, though, there would also be a lot of overlap.
However, if I asked an auditorium full of family business members the same question, their responses would be much more varied—and there would be much less overlap!
For instance, when a daughter—let’s call her Nadia—joins the family business after finishing her accountancy degree, her family’s patterns of relating as family members aren’t parked at the door. On one hand, she is ready to start her professional life and all that entails; she has spent years developing specialist skills and is well equipped to perform the tasks her new role requires.
On the other hand, she is walking into a workplace unlike any her peers are joining. Her university mentoring program covered all sorts of topics including professional values, appropriate workplace boundaries, negotiation skills, and how to handle team dynamics. None of this, however, is very useful for Nadia, because her new workplace is also not new: it is a family consultancy firm and everyone who works there is either a family member who remembers her in nappies or a long-term employee who remembers her in pigtails.
Nadia is navigating territory without the support of lived experience from her peers, without a university education framework which equips graduates facing her specific challenges, and with the added complexities of complicated family dynamics. Even in a family business where the individuals manage their interpersonal relationships fairly professionally, it’s a tough gig! And there isn’t a lot of help available.
I recently spoke to a long-term contact who, after finishing her studies, entered a family workplace similar to Nadia’s. She described her situation:
“I would be sitting at my desk, in my early twenties, trying to finish a report for a client and my mum would come up behind me and start grooming me, as some mothers like to do. She would move from fixing my hair to waging war on my blackheads! I knew that this wasn’t quite right, but I just didn’t know how to tell her to rack off!’’
I don’t think there is a university in the world which will prepare you, as you approach graduation, for an appropriate way to tell your manager to keep her hands off your acne!
While this is a light-hearted example, it is also just the tip of the iceberg. Our graduates who enter family businesses have real challenges, but where should they look to for expert help? Should Nadia browse Booktopia for titles relating to workplace boundaries, family relationships, personal assertiveness, women in business, or……what?
In my experience, there are not a lot of specialist tools available for women in family business! A good place to start, though, is Jenny Brown, PhD’s, Growing Yourself Up: How to Bring Your Best to All of Life’s Relationships. It is one of those doesn’t-quite-fit-into-any-category specialist tools. Jenny is an expert psychologist with a wealth of experience in navigating family relationships. She is founder and executive director of the Family Systems Institute and Family Systems Practice in Sydney, Australia, where she has a counselling practice and trains mental health professionals and organisations.
She understands that often the best, and really only, way to improve our family workplaces or any family relationship is by working on ourselves and understanding how childhood patterns of relating influence our adult relationships—in every aspect of our lives.
Usually, when I start working with a family to improve their family business dynamics, this is exactly where I need to start: by helping each individual learn to articulate what their values are and how to confidently express them to their family members.
Please reach out to me, the NxtGen Nexus team, or my colleagues at Women in Family Business if you need some further help navigating your specific situation and its complexities. Don’t go it alone!
Susanne is a family business advisor who is passionate about creating sustainable futures for family businesses. She is also the co-founder of Echo Impact Group, an experience & impact design agency that focuses on co-designing, transforming and strategising solutions to take you closer to meeting your organisation’s mandates around social equity and/or sustainability.