Asking the right questions about your future

When facing emotional choices involving the family firm, dig deeply for the true answers.

By Paul Frishkoff and Pat Frishkoff

Clients as well as students sometimes come to us for advice about careers in the family business. Usually, they are pondering questions like: Should I join the business? Should I remain in the business and, if so, in my present role or a new one? Should I leave the business, or retire?

Although we are always ready to give advice, we have found that the better part of wisdom is to seek the real issue underlying the question at hand.

In career planning, it is immensely important to identify the underlying issue. When people face choices that are as potentially emotional as their future in the family firm, however, they don’t always dig down to that fundamental level.

The real question usually involves feelings and lifelong issues that, even if not intimidating, often becloud career choices. In our experience, the advice-seekers are grappling with very fundamental questions about themselves, what they want in life, what they value most. For example:

Who am I? To a career planner, you are a bundle of talents, aptitudes, and skills as unique as a fingerprint.

Until you have accurately assessed your own abilities and skills (through techniques found in many good career planning books or with the aid of a planner or counselor), you are rarely in a position to assess your value to the family business or what would be a suitable role for you to play in it.

What do I want? What do I really value in my work? Many people respond to these questions by citing outward trappings of success—salary, title, perquisites, size of office, an invitation to serve on the board. You should, instead, explore some of the deeper psychological satisfactions you expect from your work. For example, do you want more freedom in your job; more expressions of support and appreciation from those around you (particularly bosses); a sense of acceptance by the group; a feeling of well-being and abundance that comes from prosperity?

We find that clients often confuse symbols of success with these inner feelings. Thus, when you are unhappy about not receiving a salary increase, your anger may be due to longstanding feelings that you are not sufficiently appreciated. When you push for a better title or position, that may seem the only way to gain more personal freedom in the workplace.

Where do I feel most at home? This may be about where you want to live, but it also may really be about the working conditions that you enjoy (indoors or outdoors; fixed hours or flexible ones; pressure or no pressure; travel or no travel). By reflecting on your likes and dislikes in previous positions that you have held, you can gain insight into the kind of work environment you prefer.

What is my goal in life? Perhaps your family business has a mission statement; some do, many don’t. Regardless, you should think about your personal mission, and whether it is consistent with the mission of the family company. What ultimately do you want to achieve in your working life? Whom do you want to serve, and in what way? When you retire, what would you most want people to say about your career accomplishments? What stimulates your enthusiasm (the word comes from the Greek for “the God within us”)?

Personal power—the key

We tell career seekers, particularly those with family business ties, to write a short, personal career mission statement. One of us, for example, has this personal mission statement: “To give honest, compassionate feedback; to show people new alternatives; to create enjoyment.” Perhaps your own mission statement will help clarify whether you can best achieve your goals inside the family business or outside of it.

We once did a casual, non-scientific survey to determine whether there is a common thread in the lives of people who have found their careers satisfying. We spoke with perhaps 100 people who were clients or seminar attendees. Some were involved in family businesses; some had no family business to enter. Some had entrepreneurial drive; others were good team players, or even loners. Some had changed jobs often; others had spent a lifetime with one organization.

What most of these people shared was what we call personal power. Despite the sound of the phrase, personal power has nothing to do with pushing others around. Rather, it suggests a sense, which all of these individuals expressed, that they have the ability to get what they really want.

Assuming that you have this personal power, you first have to know what you really want. (As Yogi Berra supposedly said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”) Second, before you can exercise personal power you have to have freedom of choice. That is why we urge younger and older generations—and the company—to consider alternatives to lockstep entry after college and lifelong employment until retirement.

We advise the company to set up rules of entry for employees (an appropriate education, so many years’ experience outside the business, and so on) and then hire the most qualified applicants for job openings. As for family members who are weighing careers in the business, we urge them to get several years of experience in other companies first, in order to prove their marketability to themselves and others; make their initial mistakes on someone else’s payroll; and bring fresh ideas to the company and avoid inbred thinking.

As in all personal relationships, it is best if both parties—the employer and the job applicant—really want what the other has to offer and are free to choose. The opposite of free choice is obligation, usually expressed in “have-to” logic, such as: “I can’t let the family down.” “I have no other possibilities.” “They made me take the job.”

“Have-to” logic may satisfy feelings of duty, but rarely leads to job satisfaction. It may, instead, lead to feelings of anger and depression.

The family firm forever?

Career planning does not end when you enter the family business. Some of the questions raised in this column should be re-addressed periodically. What attracted you to a career at the age of 21 may no longer excite the same enthusiasm at age 40 or 50. Values change. Working conditions change. People—family, co-workers, customers, suppliers—change.

Employment counselors estimate that the average person will change jobs five to nine times within his or her working lifetime. Contented careers depend on maintaining the sense of free choice, not only at the beginning, but at each choice-point.

But changing careers does not necessarily mean changing employers. Indeed, it may be possible to change careers within the family business.

Colleen, for example, was one of a dozen siblings and cousins who were vying for the top position in a fourth-generation family business in the Midwest. Colleen was not chosen; yet the competitiveness in the family was not unhealthy, and she did not come away with hard feelings. She still loved the business, working with family, and the community. Colleen had been working primarily in production and sales. Through a personal mission statement, she discovered that she has tremendous enthusiasm for writing and speaking; she is now the company’s highly competent public relations expert, although her official title of vice-president hasn’t yet changed to reflect her new responsibilities.

Doug, the 30-year-old founder of a successful but slow-growing construction business, gradually became more interested in sports and fitness. His wife, Bev, had evolved into a highly effective general manager of the company, which enabled Doug to start a separate recreation division that plans and designs school gymnasiums.

Whether you stay in the family business or pursue other options, career satisfaction requires commitment. While you are associated with the company, you must be committed to its mission, its goals, its people. Nevertheless, the commitment is also to yourself, as Tennyson wrote, “ seek, to strive, to find, and not to yield.” By re-examining our values and goals at critical stages of our lives, we renew the sense of freedom and commitment to our work that leads to true career satisfaction.

Paul and Pat Frishkoff are partners in Leadership in Family Enterprise in Eugene, Oregon, a consulting firm. Paul is a professor of business at the University of Oregon and a career/life planner. Pat is founder and director of the Family Business Program at Oregon State University.