“Family Business” … makes no sense! Introduction (Part 2)

(sans knowledge, focus, skills, and discipline)

Conflict (noun):  “a serious disagreement or argument between people with opposing views, opinions, values or principles – often over a protracted period”.

Conflict (verb):  “different, incompatible, at variance, opposing, clashing”.

There is no family on the planet, now or ever, that entirely avoids conflict between its members.  That’s not, necessarily, a bad thing.  Conflict shows that: (a) people care enough about things (hopefully, worthwhile things) to raise their issues and work them out and, (b) there’s active diversity in the family mix – essential to each members’ belief that they own, deserve, and occupy their own unique space in their family’s hierarchy.

Controlled conflict can be a good thing, but out of control conflict destroys individual lives, entire families, and the businesses they sit behind.

Family.  Traditionally defined as a group of blood-related or adopted people, living under one roof, the concept of family has recently been widened to recognise close kinship groups.

In the Family Business context, families are most helpfully regarded as complex systems – recognising that it’s hard enough to keep any family running smoothly, even when everybody’s happily getting their full ration of satisfaction and happiness, and things are going well.

When the going gets tough, watch out.  To the old saw, “Truth is the first casualty of war”, we add from our own observations, “Relationships are the first casualties of family conflict”.

During almost all family conflicts most family members doggedly assert their love for whomsoever they regard as being primarily responsible for creating the problem – notwithstanding most of their thoughts, feelings and actions are clearly at odds with their words.

It’s simply not done to say you no longer “love” a close blood relative, be they sibling, progeny, or parent.  At least, not before reaching a tipping point of anguish where, if any love remains, it’s unlikely to be manifested in any future thoughts or deeds, without some compelling reason for doing so (eg: death of a parent).

Family Business and Business Family.  Now combine a business, or any commercial activity, with two or more members of a family, possibly across multiple generations.  What have you got?  (1) a Family Business and, (2) a Business Family that lies behind the Family Business.

It helps to think of this as a “Business Family System”, subject to Micro (internal) and Macro (external) influences:


Reduced to a mathematical formula (lacking any form of arithmetic legitimacy):

1x Family System + 1x Business System = 1 x Business Family System

ie:      FS + BS = BFS         


1x Business Family System = 2x [Business Complexity + Human Intensity]2

ie:      BFS = 2x (BC+HI)2         

Conclusion: creating and sustaining a successful and harmonious Business Family foments twice the challenge of making and keeping a (simple) family happy over the long-term, plus twice the challenge involved in running a sustainably successful business, over the same term.

And all of that to the power of 2 (ie: squared)!

We should all admire families that work hard to achieve the success they deserve.  When they are successful, Luck will have played a part, but often not a major part.  And although always welcome, Luck becomes an even less significant driver the longer the family survives and thrives as a Business Family.  Hard work, directed by knowledge, wisdom, emotional intelligence and empathy, are far more significant factors.

Considering the challenges they face, it’s really no wonder Family Business provides such fertile ground for seeding conflict.

As reflected by playwrights, novelists, sensationalist press, and long-running TV programs, the simple, observable, obviously dramatic fact is that:

“Family Business” …. makes no sense!

(without relevant knowledge, focus, skills, and discipline)

The basic proposition I’ll explore over the next 50 or so blogs, podcasts, and videos is that after any rational socio-economic analysis, no genuinely decent individual would ever willingly create a business and then involve their own family in its ownership, leadership, management, and/or operations.  At least, they wouldn’t / shouldn’t do so without first ensuring they could keep everyone out of trouble by knowing how to implement the strategies, structures, systems, and skills needed to operate their proposed business, safely.

But that’s not how most people, especially driven entrepreneurs, operate in the real world and we know that, since the dawn of time, family businesses have been by far the most common form of business operating and ownership structure.

Why is this so?  Is it blind optimism, commercial desperation, willingness to rely on indentured labour, or a denial of the known and/or the bleeding obvious?  Perhaps it’s a mixture of all the above?

We do know that, although plenty of good family businesses have been very good indeed for the families that sit behind them, a much higher proportion have been bad to very bad – some even trashing their proprietors’ fortunes, and damaging or destroying the families they were supposed to benefit.

It’s even sadder and, on the surface, far less comprehensible when a family business has been financially successful, even extraordinarily so, and yet the business, and the family behind it, have failed due to natural entropy, and/or constructed or unconstrained conflict.

How do the good ones get it right?

Invariably, at some point in their journey, long-term successful Business Families: (a) decide they want to become a long-term, sustainable family-in- business and (b) were advised and/or worked out how to operate on a more strategic, structured, and disciplined basis than they’d need or want as a purely social family group, connected only by blood ties, and engaged solely in non-commercial activities.

These families actively applied their learnings in a concerted effort to become a multi-generational family business (ie: a Business Family).  This attitude is the essence of every long-lasting dynasty of emperors, monarchs, aristocrats, dictators and …multi-generational business families.

Which is not to say that all family businesses were established, or were ever intended to last.  Some were never planned as long-term business ventures, which may be entirely OK for all concerned.  They don’t interest me as much as the many that failed, despite a desire to last, because not enough of the right type of knowledge and effort went into making sure they didn’t fail.  This series shares what I feel I’ve learnt over the past 3 decades about avoiding failure.

One common cause of conflict that leads to family and business failure results from business leaders focussing more attention, and emotional investment, on their businesses than on their families.  Their absence as a leader and role model for the family, unless supported by an emotionally intelligent, competent, and engaged partner, tends to produce confused, disinterested, disturbed, dysfunctional, inept, unworthy, or conflicted family members who don’t have the emotional resilience required to create their own happy and successful lives, to take over and keep a significant business operation running profitably, or to support and manage harmonious growth in the family across generations.

Conflict in the family can create serious turmoil in the family’s business, especially when the latter has a clear and present need for a strong generational succession, plus a review and overall refresh of the organisation.  A stall in the natural life cycle of any Business Family that leads to serious unresolved conflict can create a domino effect that provides attention-grabbling inspiration for everything from Shakespearian tragedy to Netflix drama – and all leading to a bad end, unless a courageous family champion turns things around.

On the surface, business pressures appear to have a serious impact on the emotional health of business owners, but digging deeper usually reveals a plethora of issues in the family that pre-date whatever catalyst has created the current stress and conflict in the business.

The following chapters in this odyssey address at least 50 common causes of family business conflict.  I’ve called them “common” after observing each of them, in one form or another, repeatedly affecting multiple business families, over almost 3 decades.

In addition to my own experience, I’ve noted the same root causes of conflict coming up in research, in discussions with academics and other practitioners, and at gatherings of family business people – where remarkably revealing disclosures of incredibly painful and intimate issues and events are openly shared amongst members of “the tribe”.  I suspect they’re useful both as teachings and as a form of personal therapy?

In the following chapters each cause of conflict has been classified within a major category although, in truth, most causes of Business Family conflict are inter-connected in some or many ways.  There’s also no formal structure to my analysis – excepting the most obvious of groupings most of the causes I describe can standalone, even though they’ll be connected to every other cause, somehow.

Think: “Business Family Systems” – it’s a connected vibe.

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