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sensitive family business

Sensitive Family Business May Bring Up Fur Balls

Choking on the Words During Sensitive Family Business

Every cat owner knows the sounds. The deep retching and heaving. The cough that sounds like your cat just may turn himself inside out to eliminate a fur ball. Next may come a few backward hops, as if to distance himself from the mess he just created. Turns out, sensitive family business can cause the same problem.

During a recent planning session with the five members of a multi-generational family business, the CEO of the company did the most accurate reproduction of a cat’s fur ball struggle that I had ever heard. When the laughter stopped he said, “You just hit on one of our family fur balls.”

Avoiding Uncomfortable Conversations

A “family fur” ball is a topic that gets caught in the throat. Nobody wants to talk about it, and when it’s brought up, everybody takes a few steps backward to distance themselves from the potential discomfort of sensitive family business topics.

In this case, the family fur ball was the spouses’ role in decision-making in the family business. Although the spouses were not shareholders, they were frequently told that their opinions mattered, but they felt marginalized and ignored. What the shareholders didn’t want to say was that the spouses’ opinions really didn’t impact decisions in the business.

…it was clear something needed to be said.

The spouses were not employed in the business and were not familiar with the day-to-day challenges. The shareholders were hesitant to address the sensitive family business topics inherent in the different roles and responsibilities of family members, business owners and business leaders, but it was clear something needed to be said.

You may also be interested in, “Real Estate Partnerships- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

How Should You Navigate Sensitive Family Business Topics?

Every family that’s in business together has fur balls. Ignoring them can lead to deep-rooted conflict that can erode trust within the family and the business leadership. Addressing the fur balls takes courage, but here are some steps to take:

  • Recognize that you have a fur ball. Call it out, define it and state what you don’t want to talk about.
  • Ask why this particular issue has become a fur ball. What outcomes were you trying to avoid?
  • Consider the impact. Examine both the positive and negative possibilities if you do address the fur ball. Consider the impact and both positive and negative possibilities if you don’t address the fur ball.
  • Prioritize. Select the circumstances that need to be put in place to start the conversation. Define the who, when, where and what.
  • Do it. Cough up that fur ball. Have the conversation.
  • Say good-bye. Acknowledge that the fur ball is gone and don’t let this one come back. Don’t reverse position or apologize for the conversation.

You may also be interested in, “Study: Four out of Five Family Business Owners Lack Adequate Succession Plan

Addressing the family business fur balls builds family strength and supports the sustainability of the business.

A Case Study in Alleviating Family Business Fur Balls

The aforementioned multigenerational family business successfully addressed their fur ball.

  • They named it. “We want the spouses to feel engaged and supportive of the business, but they are not knowledgeable enough to influence decisions.”
  • “We don’t want them to disengage and don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
  • “If we address it, we can talk about how they can influence decisions and how they can become more knowledgeable, if that is what they want to do.”
  • “If we don’t address it, they will think we are liars and that will affect trust.”
  • They set up a family meeting to discuss roles and responsibilities of the family, the shareholders and the business leadership. They differentiated between influencing a decision and making a decision.  
  • They developed a vocabulary around the roles and use it to maintain clarity.

Going through this exercise opened the conversation to address other sensitive family business fur balls. They are on a journey to improved family and business transparency.

Every family in business together has fur balls.

Every family in business together has fur balls. What are yours? How are you holding back the family and the business by not addressing them? What would it take to start the conversation about just one family fur ball?

Once you’ve addressed these questions, set a date and make it happen. There’s no point in waiting, it will only cause the fur ball to grow in size- and then will become the elephant in the room.

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About Stephanie Olexa

I work with privately-held and family-owned businesses in the areas of succession planning, strategic business sustainability and governance. I pioneered the program Stewardship for Sustainability and developed The Business Sustainability Score Assessment to help these companies thrive through times of change. I have a PhD in Biochemistry from Temple University and an MBA in finance…

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