Difficult conversations

By Amy C. Cosper

Yeah. You need to have these more often

Noted adventurer and serial entrepreneur Richard Branson once wrote, “However important business is, family always comes first.” I think we can all agree with that statement, yes? Putting it into practice is something entirely different for family businesses. It’s a confluence of personalities, money, succession. These things require difficult conversations.

When your family and your business are one and the same, the dynamics change. Platitudes are meaningless (no offense to Sir Richard, mind you). Emotions rise, and things can become, shall we say, complicated. Entire branches of the tree can get unceremoniously lopped off or ignored, or they might stage an uprising. It’s a messy business. It’s the stuff of complex dramas, psychological studies and intense research. It’s also your reality. And you are not a data point. Maintaining control of your family’s business, success and well-being is hard. Some families choose an exit or take on non-family investors. Others stay in the soup for generations.

Yes. It is messy, but I think we all agree that at the end of the day, it’s better to retain financial control of the family business. Is it the more difficult path to take? Yes. Absolutely,” says Meghan Juday, chairman of Ideal Industries in Sycamore, Ill. (Juday is also a member of the Family Business editorial advisory board.)

Juday ascended to the chairman role last year during the pandemic and the accompanying recession. Her board leadership has begun in a Zoom-ified setting. She considers herself chairman and student on the topic of family business leadership.

“We don’t talk about it much, but sometimes we have to have difficult conversations with family members,” she says. “Whether it’s subjects like addiction or mental health, what I’ve learned is sometimes family members just simply do not talk directly to each other.”

This type of avoidance can impact not only the family dynamic, but also the long-term strategy of the business, according to Juday.

“Avoidance ultimately ends in disaster, either from a low-performing company or division or destabilizing family quarrels and distracting lawsuits. It’s so much harder to engage in these tricky dynamics, but each generation must build acumen in these areas so the business and family can survive under their watch,” explains Juday.

Family is both your greatest strength and your greatest weakness in business. To address challenges, you need to have conversations — especially the difficult ones — more frequently. It is vital to the health not only of your organization, but also of your family.

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