July/August 2016 Openers: Ask the Experts

A supportive spouse seeks advice

My husband works with his family. I work outside the business. I would like some information on how I can best support my husband as an in-law not employed within the family business. Do you have any suggestions?

Advisers' replies:

Your question brings to mind two dear friends, Max and Heather, and their experience in Germany in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall came down.

Max was hired to work directly with Carl Hahn, the president and chair of Volkswagen worldwide. The inauguration process was straightforward: Max was briefed on the business, and Heather was enrolled in "wife school"!

I have had the pleasure of collaborating with many business families that value an in-law inauguration process. These companies typically established a committee of the family forum; we called it Spouse School.

You appear to be asking two questions regarding your role:

1. How do I personally support my husband?

2. How do I handle the complex issues stemming from business family relationships to each other and to the business?

Some think in-laws should mind their own business and not do anything to embarrass the family or disparage their way of doing things. But in-laws are inevitably drawn into the business family's tensions and concerns.

In-laws occupy a special place in the business family—a position of considerable danger, but also one of potential power. They are not automatically considered members of the family, deserving of a share in the enterprise, nor are they equivalent to trusted outsiders who have endured the hardships of the company's early years.

Together with your husband, decide on what you can do to play an appropriate, constructive role. Here are a few ideas:

1. Learn the territory. Explore the communication styles and behaviors that allow his family to operate. A key question: Will you follow the established "rules," or try to facilitate some acceptable changes?

2. Establish boundaries. Be cautious when your opinion is being sought on an issue that is contentious or might escalate tensions. In-laws are often dragged into family rivalries, fueling the flames of discord by siding with their spouses.

3. Keep the peace. Avoid competing with other in-laws. Also steer clear of discussions about money, inheritance, share transfers and the like—they are time bombs. Stay away from all squabbles among those in the business. Let them settle these themselves.

4. Do the right thing. You have the power to influence your children's attitudes toward the business. Decide with your husband what information and attitude should be conveyed to your children about the internal workings of the business family.

In many business families, transparency and clear, concise communication regarding the obligations and expectations of an in-law's role provide the appropriate foundation for successful relationships and business and owner continuity.

Aron Pervin, Pervin Family Business Advisors Inc., Toronto, Ontario, Canada; www.pervinfamilybusiness.com

Yours is not an uncommon situation. Many times a family business will have only lineal descendants owning and working in the family firm—not spouses.

Recognize and accept that most family business owners want the family business to pass ownership only to the next generation, and not to a spouse. Communication is the key to avoid having such succession viewed as a rejection of beloved spouses. Consequently, many family business owners do not want to discuss their plans with family members (or, especially, with non-family members). A major hurdle for the successful transition from one generation to the next is communication about those "soft" subjects. It is much easier for current owners to procrastinate or avoid such awkward conversations. To face these issues, we recommend a family business council.

A family business council can provide an excellent forum to support your husband as a member of his family business. A council usually meets two to four times a year and covers such subjects as vision and values, thoughts on retirement, requirements for family members who wish to join the business, leadership vs. management, charitable activities and organizing celebrations of family legacy. These meetings are extremely helpful in shaping the future of the family business for future generations. By being an active listener, you can provide tremendous support. An alternative to the family council, if there is resistance, is to encourage an annual meeting of family and in-laws to discuss the topics set forth above (especially vision and values).

Try to avoid speaking negatively to your husband about the family business: the way it's run, his compensation as compared to pay for others in his family, the hours he works compared with his siblings, etc. Also try to avoid creating "triangles" (one person complaining to another about what a third person is doing, rather than discussing the issue directly with the third person).

Above all, be joyful and thankful that your husband has the opportunity to participate in his family business. At the end of the day, there is nothing better!

Beatrice E. Wolper, Emens and Wolper Law Firm, Columbus, Ohio; www.emenswolperlaw.com

One of the bigger challenges in family business is the boundary between family and business. I would suggest you support your husband by helping him keep that boundary as clear as possible. There will most certainly be times to bring the business home, but if you can help your husband achieve a greater work/life balance, he may benefit from the break.

When he does bring the family business home, sharing both the opportunities and the frustrations, I suggest you listen with a loving, caring ear. Some of the conflicts I have seen in family business arise when the husband comes home and vents to his wife about his brother, his father or another relative he works with. The wife then holds a grudge against that family member, even after the husband has long since forgotten the issue and moved on. Support your husband by hearing him out, but then let it go. Don't let it fester into the next family gathering or Thanksgiving dinner.

David M. Karofsky, President & CEO, Transition Consulting Group, Framingham, Mass.; www.FamBizConsulting.com

The first question is: What kind of understanding do you have with your husband about communication regarding the business? Does he leave the business at the office? Or does he want to share all the ups and downs, especially involving other family members, leaving you to worry about problems that you have no opportunity to resolve? Your role in that case is simply to listen and support him. Typically, you will hear things only from his perspective, without knowing the big picture—the overall dynamics involving all the other players.

One of the purposes of a family council is to provide a forum in which in-laws and other family members who are not employed have an opportunity to learn correct information about the business, its strategies and the roles that family members are expected to play. There you may have the opportunity to ask questions and hear the perspectives of other family members as well.

In-laws often are not entitled to own shares, and so their role is limited—to supporting the business, to representing it in the broader community and to raising the next generation of leaders. That may be the most powerful role of all.

Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D., Frankenberg Group, Cincinnati, Ohio; www.frankenberggroup.com

Many spouses wonder what to do in circumstances like yours. They often watch from the sidelines as tensions accumulate or businesses fail. I am assuming you would not ask for suggestions if you were not concerned about such things. It can be difficult to navigate the right balance between supportive involvement and respectful distance. The following ideas might help.

• Ask your husband how you can be supportive. Does he want you to be more involved? Less involved? Does he want your input? Does he just want you to listen to him talk about his frustrations? If you feel excluded, mention this to him. He may not be aware of how you feel or your interest in being helpful.

• When there are family gatherings, spend time with the other in-laws and, importantly, with your husband when he is interacting with the family members he works with.

• Conflict is inevitable. This can take the form of sibling rivalries, cousin squabbles, parent/child disputes or dilemmas within oneself. Sometimes having an outside person to speak with can help you think through conflicting thoughts and feelings in a self-reflective way. Also, sometimes a mediator can help facilitate meetings to help manage interpersonal and family conflicts.

• Some family businesses hold family meetings separately from business meetings in order to keep family members like you informed about business matters. Having separate family meetings also helps with sticking to business in business meetings.

• A very difficult topic to bring up is concern about drug or alcohol use by family members. If something like this is affecting the business, it may be worth the risk of feeling like you are being intrusive or rocking the boat.

• Avoid participating in triangles, gossip or personality attacks, even if others in the family business seem involved in those dynamics.

• If you have children, long-term planning can be used to differentiate among business succession planning, family estate planning and personal education and career planning. It is important to prepare potential successors for positions of responsibility far in advance, both for the welfare of the business and for the children's self-esteem. Some family businesses require that the next generation spend some time working outside the family business first.

• Mastery of listening skills by everyone is indispensable. This leads to greater empathy and communication, which inevitably brings improvement in business functioning, family harmony, financial success and personal fulfillment.

Craig Lichtman, M.D., MBA, Family business consultant, dispute mediator and divorce coach; psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Wynnewood and Philadelphia, Pa.; clichtman2@gmail.com

Copyright 2016 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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