Management Style in the Family Firm

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

When she was about six, I overheard my eldest daughter describing my work to one of her school friends. She said, “A psychologist is a mommy who sees clients in the basement.” At the time my office was located in the basement of my home, remodeled for just that purpose. And since I work often at home, my daughter has been able to see me in many of my roles, the most important to her of course is that of mommy.

Being the owner-manager of a family firm requires juggling many roles too, not just with family members but with your employees as well. How you handle your marital and family obligations affects your management style with employees and vice versa. For example, in family firms where you are working with your spouse, you must assess your style in three arenas, (1) marital, (2) parenting, and (3) business management. Furthermore, you must assess the integration of these three styles.

Let’s take marital style first. Are you both leaders? Is one the leader and the other the support person? Does the style change depending upon the context? Are you a team? Or are you both separate and dedicated to your own spheres? Does your marital style differ greatly from your parenting style or your management style?

Marital partners find each other for myriad reasons. Sometimes we are attracted to opposites. Sometimes we want someone like Mom. Other times we seek a complementary relationship. Whatever your marital style, know it. Don’t assume that it is irrelevant in your family firm. This style shows in the board room and on the production floor. If it is incompatible with the business, then you will have many problems. Employees sense the discrepancies. They know when there has been a marital fight.

If you have children whether they work in the business or not, you need to know your parenting style too. Your parenting style is affected by your business management style and vice versa. We learn a lot from our children about human behavior. Those lessons are translated to the work place.

Are you an authoritarian parent? One business owner orders his family around at home just as he does his employees at work. His wife and children don’t like it and are in fact a bit intimidated by him, but he says he can’t help himself. Are you permissive? Permissive parents often have children who are rebellious because they have always had to make their own decisions. Are you authoritative? This type of parent generally has a good balance in that they make decisions as the leader of the family, but include children when appropriate so that the children learn gradually the responsibilities of adulthood.

Parenting style is obviously related to marital style. If two marital partners do not think alike about parenting, there will be a disorganized and perhaps very depressed family. Discussing your differences about parenting and looking for a united plan is the best thing you can do for the family structure. Equally so, it is important that you determine if you are treating employees as you would your children.

Your management style at work is the third aspect of familybusiness style that needs to be evaluated. One way to categorize business leaders is as one of four styles: (1) telling, (2) selling, (3) participative, (4) delegating. Which are you? Are you apt to tell employees what to do? Or do you build a good case for what they should do? Or do you include employees or other managers in the process of developing new business? Finally, are you inclined to run the show yourself but delegate tasks to team members?

Americans have been successful in the world marketplace because of our emphasis on the “rugged individualist.” We have been willing to fight to protect the rights of the individual. But as we move into the 21st century, Americans are beginning to realize that we are all part of one planet and one global economy. We cannot afford to be isolationists. We have influence and others influence us. As members of a family firm, you are in the position of understanding these influences better than most. A family/business is a delicate balance of interacting systems such as the marriage, the family, and the business. How you manage and respond to these systems will determine your success.

An authoritarian father with a “telling” business management style and a traditional marriage characterizes the entrepreneurs of the 1940s. But because that model is so dominant many family business members don’t know what other styles exist. If following in Dad’s footsteps works for you, then look no further. But if you desire alternative styles to keep up with the changes in your business and your personal life, then look for answers to the questions in this article.

First, accept who you are. Whatever your style it is probably the most comfortable way for you to be. This doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement. But it’s best to start with who you are and then to build marital, parental and management styles around your personality.

Second, accept your spouse’s style too. She or he has developed a certain personality that is unlikely to change. Rather you two are looking for ways for both of you to realize your full potential. Don’t compromise before you have explored all of the ways for both of you to be fully who you are in the marriage and as parents.

Third, when considering a parenting style, not only do you consider your partner’s style, but you must also include the personalities and needs of your children. Most parents are astounded at how wildly different each one of their children are. While a permissive style may be appropriate for one child, another may require more authority.

Fourth, remember that your management style at work is more related to your marital and parenting styles than you realize. It is in the family that we first learn to relate to others. We learn about male/female relationships from our mothers and fathers. We learn about power and control and decision making too. We learn about love and friendship and sibling rivalry or competition. These early lessons shape us for the rest of our lives. How you treat employees and how you want them to treat you is dependent upon your understanding and utilization of these early lessons.

Virginia Satir, a noted family therapist once said that parents are in the business of “People Making.” In a family/business I think this is true in more ways than one. As parents, certainly your children are shaped by the family firm, just as my daughter sees me as a mommy who works in the basement. And as family business owners and managers your employees are also shaped by your marital/parenting/management style. You can cultivate the best in your people or something much less desirable. Understanding your unique management style in the workplace and how you have integrated past and present family lessons into a Family/Business will help you to be flexible and to adapt to the requirements of the 21st century.

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