Prepare to work with family members

Clarify roles, responsibilities and expectations

Family Business
Family Business

“This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water  seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.”

—Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer

When my brother, Bill, graduated from college, my father hired him into the business. While Dad was not the owner of the company, he was its sales manager.

Dad was a World War II veteran, having served as a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Forces. I loved Dad’s generosity, passion and determination. He was also demanding and directive as a father. I can only imagine what it might have been like to work with him.

My brother managed to successfully navigate the inherent challenges in their relationship. By the time Dad retired, my brother had advanced into a leadership role and eventually became the president of the company. His “boss” became a proud father again.

In the history of family relationships in business, it is only in recent years that there has been an exploration of the dynamics that occur when you mix the roles of father, brother, son, daughter and mother with the roles of boss and employee.

Working together in business is uncharted territory for family members. The unintended tension and stress that can result can cause irreparable damage to personal relationships.

Two important actions to take when family members work together are:

  1. Clarify roles, responsibilities and expectations.
  2. Create agreements about how family members will work together.

Clarifying roles, responsibilities and expectations

This isn’t particularly easy even when people are not related to one another!   

However, when one family member (perhaps a son) reports to another (father) it is critical that the boss (father) is able to clearly articulate the responsibilities of the job. He needs to communicate expectations and channels for accountability. As father and son, they will have an established communication pattern. It is important that both assess whether or not their father/son patterns will serve them inside a business. They may need to intentionally create a new way of talking and listening to one another in order to be effective.

We encourage an “active listening” process family members utilize in their communication with one another.

“This is what I heard you say. Is there anything I have missed?”

This strategy can initially be awkward for both, yet over time it creates a level of understanding that will strengthen their relationship and effectiveness in the business.

Establishing guiding principles: Agreement on behaviors within the workplace

In working with members of a family-owned and -operated business, we look to facilitate conversation to create guiding principles. Examples created by families include:

  • We will use our first names within the business setting.
  • We will avoid business conversation outside of the business.
  • When we have a difference of opinion, we will invite conversation with a commitment to listen to one another for understanding.
  • Inside and outside of business, we will support one another.
  • Once a decision is made, we will “carry the flag.”

In order for guiding principles to “live” within the family business, there needs to be regular self-assessment and collective assessment. We encourage our clients to use a 5-point (1=low; 5=high) scale for each of the guiding principles.

They will benefit from sharing their self-assessment, as well as the collective assessment, and invite a conversation about what they might need to do differently moving forward.

Recognizing and honoring the difference in business and family roles and creating guiding principles can provide more enjoyment in both.

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (, a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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