I coach a lot of business leaders these days. Many of these individuals are successful Directors and Vice Presidents who want to take it the next level – and fortunately for them report to bosses who believe they can!
Oftentimes, the boss is not just the boss for these leaders though. In the family businesses I support, the boss is also these leaders’ fathers. As you can imagine, this creates a very rich work environment where people tend to have very deep and intimate relationships with one another. With that said, this parent-child relationship can present certain challenges to an otherwise less complicated hierarchical structure.
So what do you do when the boss is your dad? The following are three key strategies to keep in mind when managing this complex dynamic.
1. Work is work, family is family – Now this comes from the guy who recently quoted Daniel Pink’s philosophy that companies are in fact families (see Great Leaders are Just Like Great Parents According to Daniel Pink). For the purposes of true family businesses though, I would offer that work conversations need to happen in the workplace and not take place at the kitchen table, and the same is true for bringing “kitchen talk” into the Boardroom!
I recently attended a Board meeting for one family business I support, and they unfortunately brought some very sensitive family matters into the “corporate conversation” such that one sibling shareholder stormed out of the meeting by noon and another outright resigned at the end of the day. It’s unfortunate that several matters plagued the family. Including those matters in the conversation though clearly made discussing and transacting company business much more difficult – if not outright impossible!
2. Being leader-like vs. child-like – Within the context of my family, I will always be my father’s son. That is, by the very nature of our relationship, by design and has me act in certain ways out of respect – and quite likely fear and anxiety – for my father. He’s a wonderful man, and I love him dearly. That doesn’t mean that I don’t act like a child when I am with him though.
If my father were my boss, he would depend upon me to be leader-like at the office, not child-like. Leaders lead activities, share opinions, make decisions, and solve problems. Children don’t typically act in this same responsible way. As such, we parents relate to them as children. We don’t treat them like peers or partners or trusted advisors. If you are being child-like with your parent boss at work, it’s less likely he or she will treat you like the leader you intend to be.
3. Keeping Your Two Worlds from Colliding – Do you remember the Seinfeld episode with “Independent George” and his two worlds colliding? That’s what happens when chief executive fathers (or mothers for that matter) and their direct report children collapse both sides of their identities into one. And when not handled effectively, the results aren’t pretty. They can actually be quite tragic, tearing close families apart and leaving them broken and dismantled for years and years to come.
I would offer that many of the struggles that happen in family businesses are from collapsing these two worlds into one. To keep things separate, it may be helpful to explicitly and symbolically announce which hat you are wearing at all times – child or leader, parent or boss. Revisiting my first point, it isn’t always possible or practical to keep work conversations out of the home or family ones out of the office. Just be clear when you are mixing the two – and why! – to minimize confusion and maintain the boundaries that would otherwise exist. It isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s about being clear of the game we are playing and whose playbook we are using.