Your Business is Not a “Family”

“We’re more than a business — we’re a family””I like to think of us as a family, not just a business”

I hear statements like this far too often. At best, they’re spoken by small business owners whose employees all feel a strong personal connection with each other. At worst, they’re spoken by business unit managers who erroneously assume that their 50 or 250 staff feel the same level of investment in the business that they do.

Your business is a business. Your employees have roles to play, and your job is to lead the way, and to compensate your employees for their efforts and results. If you do your job well, there’s a good chance that your employees will enjoy working with each other, will feel pride in their association with your company, and will support each other in gaining more and more success. Your employees may become friends. Your employees and their real families may build meaningful relationships outside office hours. But your company is not a family.*

“Real” families have a different set of rules.** And perhaps the most important difference for an patriarchal executive to remember is that in a family, no adult has the responsibility or privilege of directing another’s efforts or deciding how much to offer as compensation.

The 2nd-worst division VP I ever worked for often referred to our 100-person office as a family (even after I told him that I didn’t consider him my “dad”). When one of our colleagues was thinking about joining a competitor, the veep confronted him and asked him declare, “Where does your loyalty lie?” The colleague pointed to a photo of his wife and son and said, “Right there.” That’s family.


*On the off chance your business is a real family business, with all or most of your staff related by blood or marriage, please ignore this blog post and go read one of the Family Business columns by Jim Lea, business consultant and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan Flagler Business School.

**The best “real” families I know take care of their own, from cradle to grave. They share their resources. They love unconditionally. Individuals put the needs of others ahead of their own. No one gets ejected except for the most egregious of offenses. Even when families fail to meet all these ideals daily, they continue to see the wisdom in trying. This family model is self-consistent and sustainable. But it is not the model for sustainable business.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *