All in the Family

12.31.12 Mike Powell

(by Mike Powell)

Whether I’m training, coaching, consulting, facilitating, or presenting and no matter the audience or the subject matter, eventually I’ll get asked the same question or variation of the same question… “Is it hard working with your Dad” or “What is it like to be in business with family?” It seems most people believe the complexities of close relationships make going into business with family and friends daunting, if not impossible.

Yes, going into business with family and friends can be frustrating, but it has also been one of the most rewarding professional situations I have ever experienced. When it comes to family and business, there are things you can do to make it work versus keeping them “completely separated” as Biggie so famously suggested.

Appearing on the posthumously released, multi-platinum album Life After Death from the late great rapper Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace, The Ten Crack Commandments is an urban manifesto. A ‘How-to Guide’ for hustlers. A “step-by-step booklet” complete with instructions for being a successful entrepreneur in the dangerous business of street hustling. While I can’t relate to most of the tensions that inspired Wallace to make this song, I have always appreciated the business acumen he displayed. Beyond the flagrantly illegal subject matter, the 10 Crack Commandments offered a different perspective on the challenges of being an entrepreneur. Ironically, it was BIG’s 7th commandment about family that provoked the deepest reflections about my life :

Rule #7: This rule is so underrated. Keep your family and your business completely separated.

For me, joining “the family business” was always a realistic option for my career, but listening to this song always made me think otherwise – and for good reason. Working relationships with family and friends can be complicated for a number of reasons:

  • You have private information about your co-workers
  • You have a history with them which may include positive and negative experiences
  • There are many more mutual personal relationships involved (i.e. other family members and friends)
  • You don’t know how to give/receive professional feedback and maintain a personal relationship

Tips for Making it work

So, how can you make it work? Like any successful entrepreneurial venture, family business requires six main areas of focus: financial, operational, marketing, product development, strategy, and leadership. In addition to these focus areas a family business requires a few additional considerations.

1) Well defined roles and responsibilities – Everyone involved must have a clear understanding of their roles.  Of course there will be times when responsibilities overlap, but generally, each person should know what is expected of them and what they can expect from others.

2) Designate clear boundaries between personal and professional issues – This is one of the biggest challenges I’ve experienced because the lines can get blurred so easily. Make sure business concerns are addressed during times of business or times earmarked for business. Holiday dinner is NOT the time to address performance issues. There is an appropriate time and place for everything, so be sure everyone involved is aware of those times and places.

3) Agree on an exit strategy – At some point you might decide the endeavor isn’t working out the way you planned and you want to walk away.  But unlike a job where you can walk away and never see your colleagues again, you will more than likely  still be in contact with your friends and family. To avoid hurt feelings and damaged relationships, take time to discuss what represents the breaking point for each individual involved.

4) Decide how will other family and friends be involved – As you grow and begin to prosper, inevitably, more friends and/or family will want to be involved in the business. Decide how they will be involved and compensated.  In addition, make sure they have a clearly defined role and have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to be successful (see rule #1).

5) Plan for success –President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.” In the formative stages of the business, it is important to have a plan for success. While plans can and often do change, the thinking and analysis that goes into the plan is often more valuable than the actual plan that emerges

6) Clarify process issues – Process issues clarify how things are done (As opposed to content issues, which address what is being done, all parties involved should have a conversation about process issues such as: how decisions will be made? Who will make them? How workload be divided? How do we manage schedules? How will we resolve conflict? In my experience, it is the process issues that derail most businesses and organizations.

7) Don’t expect people to change (too much) – We all have strengths and weaknesses that we bring to the table. But, don’t expect those weaknesses to suddenly go away just because we’re now working together. . In fact, as an entrepreneur or member of a small business, those strengths and weaknesses get magnified. So instead of getting frustrated and hoping people will change, decide how you to position people so the business can capitalize on their strengths while mitigating the weaknesses.

Like any business, going into business with family and friends can be difficult. While the challenges aren’t unique, the stress and impact on a personal level can be deeper. Before making the decision it is important to have open and honest communication. It will certainly help in the long run. And while I can’t promise you that following these rules will give you “mad bread to break-up”, perhaps they will give you something to think about as you get started.

Mike Powell is the Vice President of Organizational Development & Training at the Powell Consulting Group. For more information on PCG’s professional development, coaching, and training services contact Michael at or visit

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