The Marshmallow Effect

A young heir in Scotland warns members of his generation against drifting into the family business too soon, lured by a sweet, comfortable lifestyle.

By John Stepek

I am the son of a second-generation managing director—the CEO of our family’s retail electrical business—and I know only too well the emotions that besiege potential successors. The business is both a blessing and a curse. It is always there, should you have the desire, or need, to join it. However, it is also a drain on the motivation you need to achieve your own ambitions. Other family members’ expectations, a sense of duty, the desire for a comfortable lifestyle, and a lack of direction can all lead a young person to drift into the family business—without a sense of commitment or eventual career satisfaction.

What I refer to as “the marshmallow effect” occurs when young heirs like me allow themselves to be absorbed by a sweet, comfortable, and ultimately soft option that is extremely easy to get into, but almost impossible to escape from.

The marshmallow effect can have serious consequences. Someone who drifts into a career will likely never experience professional satisfaction, and is likely to suffer from a lack of self-confidence, never sure whether his position is a product of his efforts or his name. This can lead to low morale and family conflict, because the person often blames or resents other relatives or the business for his lack of happiness.

The business suffers, too, because uninspired employees do not achieve results. Furthermore, the mixing of blood and business makes dealing with this person complicated. Often such a family employee is pushed into a high-paying, low-responsibility job, which keeps him out of trouble and avoids the issue of dismissal. No business should be forced to carry passengers.

Even family members who are good at their jobs may experience doubts due to the marshmallow effect. My father and eight of his siblings have greatly increased the size and profitability of J. Stepek Ltd., and are highly respected. My father has proved his capability to be managing director. And yet he still feels that working in other organizations would have helped him attain greater self-confidence more quickly. He also believes it would not have taken him as long to feel truly committed to the business had he decided to join the family firm out of desire, not because he was too poorly qualified to do anything else.

My uncle, on the other hand, worked in a highly paid position developing computerized taxation systems for a local government authority. He realized that his talents would be put to better use for the family. Thus he joined the business with a clear idea of what he wanted to do, and with the skills and attitude of any outsider applying for the same job. In other words, he came into the business as a professional, not a relative. This has made a great difference to his own performance, his perception of the company, and his working relationship with other family members, who treat him as an equal despite his younger age.

I have never had any desire to join the family business. My goal is to carve out a career as a writer. While I hone my craft, I oversee training and human resources for a classified-ad services company. However, the family business always beckons. It is interesting, often exciting, and offers many opportunities for financial reward and intellectual stimulation. Several times in my youth I was tempted to drop everything and allow myself to be “marshmallowed”—when the university became boring, money became tight, or the going got tough.

Therefore, it was with great relief that I welcomed the new “five-year rule” imposed by the company. It states that no family member may enter the business without at least five years’ experience working elsewhere. It is designed so that family members who eventually come into the business do so by choice, and with skills and experience that will benefit the organization. It also prevents offspring from drifting into the business without having first attempted to develop themselves and their potential.

The five-year rule helped me a great deal because it was imposed during my final year of university. It took away a possible escape route. It forced me to motivate myself to work harder. And if I do someday enter the business, I’ll know that it will be my work that will have gotten me there.

I have two younger sisters and 15 younger cousins. It is possible that if I don’t join the business until later, siblings or cousins who joined right after their five years will get a step ahead of me on the management ladder. Some people would find this prospect difficult to deal with, but I do not. First of all, I am the eldest of the third generation, so I would not be faced with “competition” for several years. But more importantly, I firmly believe that if you want to get to the top, you have to work for it; you don’t inherit it. The reason our family introduced the five-year rule is to remove the emotional aspects of family conflict and make entry into the business a professional process. In my current job, I expect to progress only through my own efforts, and that’s the way I would expect it to be if I became part of the family business. That is the only way I would know I had attained my position because I was the right person for the job.

To all those potential successors out there who are not allowed to join the business because they don’t have outside experience, be grateful. To all those who have suffered from the marshmallow effect, and are wondering how to prevent it from happening to the next generation, consider the five-year rule. It is doing well by me.


John Stepek is a 22-year-old writer who lives in Glasgow, Scotland.