Couples can balance dynamics of decision-making process


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

Have you ever wondered why the symbol for “Justice” is a woman and she’s blind to boot? Or another curiosity is that the statue in New York harbor, representing the United States of America is Lady Liberty. What is it that these female spirits represent? Why are women the symbol of our judicial system and the country as a whole? I think a partial answer may come from observing the growth of entrepreneurship among American women, both as solo entrepreneurs and as entrepreneurial couples.

Now that women are starting businesses in record numbers (i.e. three to five times the rate of men!) there are many more stories about startups that involve women entrepreneurs. Especially the Internet and telecommuting have opened an avalanche of opportunities for women. Women are also better educated than before and many are educated in traditionally male dominated fields such as business management, the sciences, and engineering. As a result we are gathering more and more information on how these women function as entrepreneurs and how they are different than men.

In spite of parity in education, equal access to financing and an Internet marketplace that doesn’t impose gender restrictions, there are a few male/female traditions that hold. When the owner is female you may not see much difference in a company, either with the product or the revenue. However, the differences between male and female entrepreneurs become more apparent when a husband and wife equally own and operate a company. Management, decision-making, even operations are powerfully influenced by these style differences. This can be an asset, of course . . . the integration of a male perspective and a female perspective. But often a husband and wife get stuck because they do not recognize the dynamic that is going on.

One of the most interesting of these dynamics between a husband and a wife who are both entrepreneurs is how they make decisions. One way I sum it up is that men make the first best decision, but women seek out the best-best decision. In the fashion of Lady Justice (where the blindfold represents impartiality), women want to look at all sides of an issue before deciding anything. They value everyone’s opinion in the process of moving toward a decision. They may have a strong opinion themselves, but like the blind Lady, they are willing to stay impartial until they have gathered enough information from others. Men on the other hand seek to move the organization along as swiftly as possible. Regardless of everyone’s view, men tend to value the efficiency of getting to the answer quickly. If a man has an opinion, dialogue with others is not always to merely gather information, but to persuade others toward his point of view.

How does this dynamic work when a husband/wife team needs to make decisions together? If they understand each other well, then the decision-making dynamic is powerful. If they don’t, then each party can feel very misunderstood. For example, if the wife is gathering information from her husband regarding some aspect of the business, then she may initiate a discussion with her husband. He often doesn’t hear that she wants to discuss the subject. Rather he hears that she wants him to make a decision. Therefore he tells her his decision and considers the discussion completed. She leaves unfulfilled because she wants to toss ideas around before a decision is made. Later when the husband’s decision is not carried out, the husband may feel frustrated because he thought a decision had been made. Sound familiar? It’s because women tend to have discussions and men tend to go strait to decisions.

When a husband and wife work together there is the potential to create a strong leadership for their organization. When a husband recognizes that his wife needs an impartial discussion with a variety of options before deciding, she feels understood and more inclined to move toward decisive action.

When a wife recognizes that her husband has a need to get things done as efficiently as possible, she can refocus her energy onto solutions, even if she would like just a little more discussion.

Lady Liberty represents this principle of the combined talent and energy of an entrepreneurial couple. That is, a woman was chosen to represent America rather than a conquering male warrior, because of the desire to represent our country as welcoming immigrants (i.e. “. . . give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”). Lady liberty is carrying a torch in her hand, not a sword, symbolizing the enlightenment of democracy that shines out to the world. She holds the Declaration of Independence in the other hand as evidence that we are all created equal. On her ankle is a chain that is broken, representing freedom from oppression. Yet the statue is enormous, representing strong and powerful leadership and even domination in the world.

In other words, when making a business decision an entrepreneurial couple can combine the wife’s strengths and the husband’s strengths, and may just be what the business needs to keep its competitive edge in the marketplace. Just as Lady Liberty welcomes immigrants, the wife can welcome a variety of options and possible solutions to a problem, weighing those options impartially just as Lady Justice does. Lady Liberty also represents decision making in that she is holding the Declaration of Independence or the law of the land, just as the husband’s strength is to get the decision made and follow it with action, as is implied by the sword that Lady Justice holds. In either case, whether it be the husband’s or the wife’s decision-making strategy, the goal is a fair decision, something both Ladies stand tall for.

To be sure many women entrepreneurs have the same decision-making qualities as men do. And there are male entrepreneurs who carefully weigh options before deciding. However, it is the interaction between men and women where you see the tendency to lean toward the more traditional roles. If you work with your spouse, you probably know what I am talking about. Now take this awareness and use it to the fullest to take your enterprise to a new height and enlighten the world with your success.

Achieving Harmony in the Family Business


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

In January I was a speaker at the annual conference of the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship in San Diego. There were other presentations at the conference that were interesting and helpful too, but the one that really caught my attention was a panel of CEOs from successful family firms in the San Diego area. The title of the seminar was “What do family firms want from consultants?” The panelists discussed their most pressing concerns and the one that topped the list was how to create harmony among family members who work together. Although legal, financial and business consultants abound, these CEOs felt that they already had those matters covered. What they really want help with is communication and relationship skill building to create a meaningful and harmonious family/work life.

It’s not hard to understand why this is so important to these California CEOs, as well as those of you living in the Northwest. It’s one thing to run a successful enterprise, but if you have failed in your marriage, or you have alienated your siblings, or you have intimidated your children, then who do you share your successes with? Achieving harmony in personal relationships requires skill, time and commitment. As if that isn’t enough, accomplishing these goals is that much more difficult when you also work with the ones you love, which requires negotiating a business relationship as well as a personal one.

I have reported before on the research showing that entrepreneurs will spend exorbitant amounts of time at work and short their families. Entrepreneurs (both male and female by the way) are willing to work early and late almost every day, but rarely will they report to work late or leave early. Perhaps once a month, they may leave the office early on a Friday night to be with their families. Yet in spite of this entrepreneurs will tell you that their loved ones are more important to them than their work. It’s just that work is more compelling. Taking just one more phone call or putting the finishing touches to that important contract, or even solving an employee morale problem come before attending to the interpersonal relationships of CEOs in family firms.

When family members work together, it often turns into all work and no play.

The personal side of the family/business relationship is taken for granted. There seems to be a belief that “because we love each other and because we are family,” there is endless tolerance and support for work at the expense of the relationship. Apparently this lack of attention to the personal side is what ruined the Hanshaw brothers. While in southern California at the conference, I happened to read an Orange County newspaper and learned of the bitter feud between Jack and Randy Hanshaw. The brothers had been in business together for years, along with several other family members. They each had outside interests as well. Together and separately they amassed a fortune. Starting out as a milkman in the 1960s, Jack started buying liquor stores and then strip malls. His brother Randy soon discovered the untapped potential of Arizona real estate. Each invested in the other’s business and made it possible for others in the family to create wealth as well.

However, in 1994 Jack accused his brother Randy of cheating him and started a lawsuit. Randy hired his brother-in-law for his attorney, furthering the feuding within the family. In spite of repeated efforts to resolve the suit, it degenerated into “a highly emotional, mean-spirited war of brother against brother, with money no longer the real object” according to the judge involved. Because the brothers could not settle their dispute, the judge ruled to dissolve the partnership and appointed a reciever to divide the $6 million in property.

The receivership was humiliating enough for the brothers, but so enraged was Jack Hanshaw that he offered a $100,000 bribe to the reciever. Of course he was reported to the judge who then fined Jack another $700,000 for the criminal act. Oddly enough, it was discovered that Jack was the actual cheating brother. Not only did he attempt to bribe the receiver, a local bankruptcy attorney (and also my brother-in-law) but he had taken $500,000 of his brother Randy’s money!

How do these things happen? They happen when minute problems are ignored and business comes first. Left unresolved these minute problems grow into small issues, which grow into average-sized resentments, then expanding into large stone walls of bitterness. Brothers who shared the same bedroom as children grow into the bitterest of enemies, willing to do whatever it takes to get revenge.

How can these things be prevented? Obviously at the point where the Hanshaw brothers are, there is no turning back. They may never again be able to enjoy each other’s company. And sadly for the rest of the family, because the line has been drawn and sides have been taken, the entire family may never again be whole. But for those of you reading this column, prevention is simple if you follow the suggestions listed below. Remember that if you work in a family firm, most of your interactions with your family involve work. You need to give at least equal time to the personal side to keep communication, trust, love and respect healthy.

1. Take time away from work every day to talk with your family/business partners about something other than work. You might start the morning with coffee and sharing the crossword puzzle.

2. At least quarterly, arrange a retreat for the family firm that involves playing, such as a trip to the mountains to ski.

3. Discuss all problems no matter how small, whether they are work issues or not.
4. Allow for individual differences. Allow members to speak up in disagreement. Just because you are family and work together, does not mean you are all joined at the hip. So make room for new and different opinions and ways of doing things.

5. Hang in there when there is a problem. Don’t give up until you have a solution to the problem that is a winning one for everyone.

6. If things get out of hand, ask for professional help.

Families are composed of individuals who love each other and have a commitment to take care of each other. Businesses are composed of individuals too, but there is not always the same level of either caring or commitment. When you combine family and business the values of this hybrid may be confusing for people. Keep the rules clear. Healthy loving relationships should always come before business needs, just as those CEOs in San Diego realized. If you are communicating openly and loving unconditionally, then family members in family firms should be able to grow successful family/businesses.

Dual – ing Entrepreneurs

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

When I returned to the office a few months ago I found a phone message from Dick Wilsdon indicating he wanted to talk with me about a recent column I had written. He was especially interested in the topic of competition among spouses who work together. Being somewhat of an expert on this topic, having researched the area for years, consulted with many entrepreneurial couples, and written not only countless Vancouver Business Journal articles, but recently published a book on the subject, I felt confident that I could answer Dick’s questions and give him a few pointers to boot! But with his first question I was stumped. “I was just wondering,” he said, “if you knew anything about couples who operate competing businesses?”

Dick and Linda Wilsdon are such a couple, believe it or not. Dick owns Western Nugget Transportation and Linda owns All Americas. Both are transportation brokers and quite successful at it. Each has had the honor of being among the INC. 500, an annual award given by INC. Magazine to American companies who have distinguished themselves. The following is a run down on just how Linda and Dick do it.

There is an interesting story behind how this couple found themselves in competition. Certainly they didn’t plan this outcome. It was a natural progression of events. Entrepreneurs are like that. The successful ones allow nature to take it’s course and capitalize on it. Dick has always been an entrepreneur. He has owned several businesses, so it was a natural to move from being a trucker to being a transportation broker.

Linda on the other hand never thought of herself as an entrepreneur. Like so many women, entrepreneurship came as a result of helping out the family. In order to bring their son into the business, Linda started All Americas as a way to prepare their son for taking over Dick’s business someday. Mom and son were to work the business together. As it turned out, the son wasn’t interested after all, so Linda was left with the decision of letting the business go, joining forces with Dick and Western Nugget, or continuing on her own. With her husband’s encouragement and blessing, she took on the task of running All Americas on her own.

Although Linda had no business experience before starting All Americas, she took on the challenge and soon gave Dick a run for his money. While Dick was nominated to the prestigious INC. 500 in 1987, Linda was nominated just six years later because her business was booming. Linda talks about how scared she was to take over All Americas when her son left, but Dick had every confidence. He mentored her during those early years, but acknowledges that she has abilities that he lacks. He says, “This woman is the most fantastic people motivator I know. Watching her motivate people is like a symphony!”

Herein lies the key to the Wilsdon’s success as a competing dual-entrepreneurial couple. They have tremendous love and respect for each other. They consider each other best friends. Although they may disagree heartily about things, they make a point to work the arguments out. And they don’t take things personally. When I asked Dick and Linda what advice they would give to other competing dual-entrepreneurial couples, they offered these three nuggets:

  • “Talk a lot.”
  • “Be willing to give.”
  • “Think of your spouse as a 60% partner … 10% better than an equal partner.”

Over the years the Wilsdons have demonstrated in their behavior that they really believe in this advice. They are early risers and in the morning over coffee the two of them discuss the business, their lives, the kids, etc. Because they enjoy each other’s company they do spend a lot of time together, so talking comes easily. They grocery shop and run errands together too, rather than allow efficiency to divide them up. And they love to travel, so they incorporate lots of play time together. Talking a lot doesn’t just mean discussing business. It’s a time to reconnect with your spouse/partner … to let each other know that you love and respect the other person.

Being willing to give takes on another meaning for the Wilsdon’s too. Because Dick had already proven himself in business before Linda started her enterprise, he was in a position to mentor her.

He wasn’t really giving up anything by encouraging her to develop a competing business. His business is strong and profitable. Rather he views it as helping his wife be the best she can be. Dick loves having a strong, assertive, capable wife who keeps him on his toes. He admires her strengths and feels that he benefits from them too. After all if Western Nugget loses a bid to All Americas, he still reaps the financial rewards. And the friendly competition spurs his staff on to improve their performance.

The Wilsdon’s do have some rules about competing however. They never go after each other’s existing business. They only compete for new work. Everything is out in the open … no secrets between them. Although they may enjoy rubbing it in once in awhile when one company has the edge over the other, they really enjoy helping each other win. In other words, I don’t really think they are in competition at all. Rather each has the goal of being the best they can be and encouraging that in their spouse.

The proof of all of this is right there at their company offices. Western Nugget and All Americas are side by side in a Hazel Dell office complex. Each business has it’s own legal identity and separate staff, but employees do cross over sometimes. Once the Wilsdon’s daughter worked for Dad and now she works for Mom. Interestingly Dick has a woman office manager and woman bookkeeper, while Linda has a man office manager and a man bookkeeper. They laugh and tell me that this is just a coincidence, but I wonder if it is just another way the Wilsdon’s keep things balanced.

The Wilsdon’s may be a unique couple in that they operate competing businesses, however, all entrepreneurial couples can benefit by the principles that they live by. It takes a lot of maturity to put your egos aside and encourage your partner’s talents, especially when they might show you up. It takes courage to accept criticisms from your spouse/partner and really hear these criticisms as helpful feedback from one who knows you well. It takes patience to listen and work through problems. Communicating regularly with your spouse/partner is often the last thing busy entrepreneurial couples do, but it is essential to a healthy business and a loving marriage.


Why can’t we Communicate now that we live and work together?


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

“She’s so busy I hardly see her at the office anyway.”

“I just let him handle things his way.”

“We’re not very good at resolving problems, so I let it go.”

“I just hate confrontation!”

Listening, talking, communicating, resolving problems, making joint decisions… these are requirements for all business owners, not just entrepreneurial couples. Yet entrepreneurial couples often complain that communicating effectively with each other is the last thing they do. Without good communication skills and quality time dedicated to communicating, relationships (business and personal) soon flounder and fail, especially among couples with the stress of two careers, or a joint enterprise, and a full family life. Moreover, the potential for a breakdown in communication grows as the complexity of the family/business system increases.

Probably the number one reason entrepreneurial couples don’t talk is that they let the business run their lives. In my research and consultation work I have found that these couples are more willing to take time from home for work activities than they are willing to take time from work for home activities. In general these couples are rarely willing to leave for work late; very occasionally they may be late not more than fifteen minutes. However, they are willing to be late getting home one to four times a week by more than an hour each time. As well, these couples are willing to leave home for work more than thirty minutes early one to two times per week. On the other hand, they are willing to leave work early for home only once a month. As long as these tendencies prevail, entrepreneurial couples are giving themselves very little quality time to devote to confront and solve the inevitable conflicts that will arise in their personal relationship.

Work is a major source of satisfaction for adults. There are immediate payoffs with work, unlike with relationships. Likewise, there are problems and crises at work that draw our attention away from relationship responsibilities. Most career-minded Americans admit that their families are more important to them than their work, but that they derive more personal satisfaction from work (i.e., their creative side). This obviously poses a serious dilemma, and one that most entrepreneurial couples ignore, because everyone else does.

The second major reason entrepreneurial couples don’t talk is that they are avoiding conflict and confrontation. There is a common misconception that conflict and confrontation are bad. One of the major reasons entrepreneurial couples have problems is their failure to confront issues head-on. They may fight openly or quietly seethe, but they have a terrible time confronting the real conflict respectfully and honestly. It’s as if confrontation and conflict are impolite. However, conflict and confrontation are natural and healthy components of any relationship. You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.

You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.

As a member of an entrepreneurial couple you are under more stress and potential conflict than others. The worlds of your personal life and work life overlap considerably, creating more intersecting points. This creates a highly complex system of constantly changing roles and rules. Because you cannot really separate home and work, you must learn how to integrate these two worlds better. The tools you used for communicating and resolving conflicts before you worked together may just not be good enough anymore. As an entrepreneurial couple you and your spouse face dilemmas that may have never surfaced before to give you worry. This means you need to enhance your communication and problem solving skills beyond simple linear cause and effect (i.e. blame).

The first place to start is to actually make time to communicate with your partner/spouse. Make time for personal, marital, family and work communication. Give each equal time or at least what they need. Don’t leave this to when you have the time. Make it part of your daily and weekly routine. Informing and clarifying with each other on a daily basis is vital in our crazy, fast-paced lives. Memos and e-mails are OK, but a good face-to-face conversation does more than convey the facts; it keeps the good feelings alive.

Second, practice good communication skills. It wouldn’t hurt to take a class, or read a book on communication. I offer some communication advice in Chapter 3 of my book, ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home. You really may not have to look far for those communication skills, though. You probably already use them in your work, with employees, colleagues, business associates. It’s just that you never thought to use those same successful methods with your spouse. Certainly you realize that communications go more smoothly and solutions are arrived at more readily, when you listen respectfully, establish rapport, and move toward win-win solutions. Why not try this same approach with your business partner/spouse?

Third, do not fear conflict and confrontation. Because of the highly complex and interactive, multi-level system you have created as an entrepreneurial couple and family, conflicts are inevitable and actually a sign of growth. Therefore, avoiding conflict is not the goal. Rather you want to develop the tools to “lean into” conflicts and resolve them early on, so that you can reorganize your lives to include the new learning. Because entrepreneurial couples have a lot at stake when it comes to their business and their relationship, they are prone to avoid conflict or to use ineffective tools to solve the conflict too quickly. Compromising and acquiescing are two of these ineffective tools.

Most couples are shocked when I advise them to avoid compromises at all costs. After all, isn’t compromise a requirement of partnership, both personal and business? The reality is that decisions that are arrived at through compromise usually lack creativity and seldom last. Sure, a compromise now and then may be necessary for the sake of expediency, but if a decision is important, a compromise may cause anger and resistance. Because compromises are usually a result of both people giving up something in order to get an agreement, the decision is a watered-down version of two stronger opinions. While it may be satisfactory to accept compromise decisions for things like choosing a restaurant for dinner, where neither of you gets your first choice but both must accept a third alternative, accepting a third, less-threatening alternative for your business may sabotage your competitive edge.

Compromise is the easy way out when you are trying to avoid conflict and confrontation. It appears that the compromise will smooth ruffled feathers and that both partners can go away happy. What really happens, however, is that each partner leaves feeling as though they have been had. One person may resent having to compromise and will be looking for ammunition to prove that the decision was a bad one. Another person may feel he or she has done the honorable thing by not pushing his or her opinion on the other, only to feel unappreciated later when the compromise plan is dropped. If you stop and think about it, how long have your compromise decisions really lasted?

Acquiescing or forcing your opinion upon your partner are other ways of avoiding conflict. In seeking to avoid conflict, for example, a persuasive person may push his or her partner to acquiesce to a certain point of view, but this does not mean that the partner agrees. It may mean only that the partner actually does not want to fight and so appears to agree, when he or she has only given in. Don’t make the mistake of pushing to win at all costs or to acquiescing to the persuader, when you don’t agree. In either case, if you are the persuader or the acquiescent partner, the conflict has not been resolved and, what’s worse, may have been driven underground.

“Why can’t we communicate now that we live and work together?” The answer to that question is pretty clear for entrepreneurial couples. If you don’t make time to talk, if you don’t consider nurturing your personal relationship as important as nurturing your business, and if you avoid healthy conflict and confrontation, your partnership/relationship will disintegrate into two uninvolved business associates at the best, and into bitterness and divorce at the worst. So take the time now to evaluate your communication skills and your life/business plan. Invest in the time to develop a meaningful, loving relationship with your spouse that enhances your business relationship.

Can Husbands and Wives be Business Partners

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

MAN SEEKING WIFE/BUSINESS PARTNER

Successful business man seeks life partner to share my entrepreneurial dream. Must believe in me and be supportive of the long hours required of a start-up venture. Nothing is too much for you in that you are comfortable juggling the many demands of the wife of an entrepreneur…household, childcare, social obligations and working late hours at the office to meet deadlines. Opportunity to develop your own very satisfying career as you help me build my business. Your rewards are financial security, the opportunity to be part of something big, and the chance to work side-by-side with your husband. At work you are my hard-working right hand person. At home you are the loving support that makes the long hours worthwhile.

WOMAN SEEKING HUSBAND/BUSINESS PARTNER

Career-minded, college educated woman with entrepreneurial spirit, tired of facing the “glass ceiling” of corporate life seeks like-minded college educated male to share love and business partnership in a start-up venture. Must believe in egalitarian relationships, sharing fully in the household maintenance as well as sharing equally in the ownership, management and responsibility of our joint business venture. Even though you possess creativity and leadership skills which you use to help me create the “American Dream”, you’re ego is not bruised by my ability to make decisions and take charge. At work, you are dedicated, aggressive and single minded in your pursuit of success for our business. At home you relax and become playful because you are a loving, sensitive, communicative male, who adores me and takes the time to get to know our children.

The “personal ads” I have written above are of course, tongue in cheek. Yet they represent a classic problem that entrepreneurial husbands and wives bring to their partnership. Each spouse has a very different concept of what they would like in a business/marital partner. Because their expectations are so radically different, husbands and wives become confused and frustrated with a partner that they love. They wonder why they ever asked the other to work with them. Sometimes they wonder even if they should remain married.

As more and more couples consider entrepreneurship, it becomes painfully apparent that they are unprepared for the stress business collaboration will cause their personal relationship. Many career-minded husbands and wives have already achieved some success in the work world before embarking on their own venture. Likewise they may feel that their personal relationship is solid and healthy and capable of taking on the added strain of working together. Yet few of these couples discuss the ramifications of working together. They are totally unprepared for the blurring of boundaries and turf when a spouse becomes one’s business partner. However, clarifying the work/home expectations of each spouse/business partner should be the first thing that any entrepreneurial couple does, even before spending a cent on letterhead, or signing the bank loan.

For example, even though Charlene started the real estate company five years before Ted joined her in the business, she found herself deferring to Ted more and more as the two of them worked together. As a traditional couple, who had two grown children, they were used to Ted being the “head of the household.” When they started to work together, they assumed the same roles at the workplace. The problem was that Charlene had nowhere to go with her entrepreneurial spirit and leadership skills. The solution was to redesign the business so that each had their own division to lead and operate.

Frank and Louise had a difficult transition. Although they had a traditional marriage, they operated as equals in the career world, as long as they worked for different companies. When they started their entrepreneurial venture, conflicts arose because they had not discussed expectations at work.

Frank continued to operate as the “head of the house” at work, while Louise designed her work schedule according to the former egalitarian arrangement. Frank started to complain that Louise did not work as hard as he did and that she didn’t care about the success of the business. Louise felt unappreciated because she was working very hard on projects that she felt were important. The problems were (1) that the couple was not talking about work priorities, nor coordinating those priorities and (2) they were using two conflicting models to operate as partners at work. Eventually, the couple decided to maintain the separation of work lives that had worked so well for them in the past. Louise left the business and pursued other interests.

Elise and Aaron were extremely puzzled by the marital conflicts that arose when they decided to move their respective businesses into the same building. They had had a warm and respectful marriage for ten years. Each had built their individual professional practices in that same time and they were thriving. However, when they moved into the same office suite, now seeing each other everyday at work as well as at home, conflicts were happening more often. The tools that the couple had used in the past to resolve problems weren’t working anymore. What was needed was a new set of tools for the changes in the marital/business partnership.

Entrepreneurial couples have a lot of work today to balance the competing demands of home and work. Whatever your style of couple entrepreneurship (a solo proprietorship, co-entrepreneurial couple or dual-entrepreneurs) there are few models to guide you in maintaining a loving marriage and a thriving business simultaneously. There are a myriad of variables to consider. So my advice is to design a model unique to the two of you. Begin by talking with your spouse/partner about the goals each of you has for yourselves individually in life. Then go on to discuss marital goals, family goals and finally business goals. (I have a more comprehensive outline of how to do this in my book ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making it Work at Work and at Home.)Ultimately you are searching for a flexible system of relating that can change with the circumstances of your life, your lives together, and the changing marketplace of your business.

Are you Mom and Pop in the Office?


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

Fran and Larry are corporate farmers. They have a large operation that grew from one farm, when Larry took over the business from his father, to three farms and a retail outlet, plus several related agricultural investments. They continue to expand north and south along the fertile valleys of the Pacific Northwest.

Many of the employees have worked for Larry and Fran since the time of Larry’s father, but most are new hires. As the business expanded, the company changed from a small “Mom and Pop” operation to a sophisticated multi-level enterprise, racking up impressive national and international sales. This growth required hiring more technical, sales and even marketing personnel to help prepare the business for the next millennium.

Both Larry and Fran have college degrees and are proud of bringing their agricultural business into the computer age. They have talented, well trained farm hands, mechanics, foremen, sales people, office staff and managers, who are helping the business grow in a healthy and competitive way. They have one son in college, studying farm management and a daughter already working full time in the retail outlet. They thought they covered everything when they took the business over from Larry’s dad and began moving into the future. What they had not counted on was human nature.

The element of human nature that I refer to is the tendency of employees to relate to an entrepreneurial couple as “Mom” and “Pop.” You may never have considered this phenomenon before, but if you are a member of a husband/wife entrepreneurial team, you probably know what I mean. And if you work for an entrepreneurial couple, I am sure that at least once, you have referred to them as “Mom” and “Pop,” if not to their faces, certainly to other employees.

Some entrepreneurial couples do not mind the stereotyping. They enjoy the role of parenting their extended business family. They even refer to the company as “one big happy family.” If employees do not mind being treated like children, even indulged children, this is not a problem. However, problems arise when the transference creates more unpleasant connections. Not all employees nor employers have fond memories of their childhoods and they may have unresolved issues between themselves and their parents. These unresolved issues can erupt between employer and employee when the setup is a “Mom” and “Pop” business.

With Larry and Fran there were several signals that they were being treated like parents by employees, even when they themselves did not overtly acknowledge their role as “Mom” and “Pop.” Just because they are a husband/wife team, and have grown children involved in the business, employees infer a parent/child relationship. For example, employees often come to Fran about problems they are having with Larry, even though Fran has no authority in their area. They request of her to intercede.

In another situation, Larry found one employee seeking his approval for nearly every aspect of his job. Even though this manager is quite capable, and came highly recommended, he seemed to be unable to operate independently. This sounds typical of an insecure child who needs Dad’s praise in order to feel loved.

A third example really brought the problem home for Larry and Fran. The couple noticed that whenever they openly disagreed about something at work, such as at a meeting with their managers, the employees involved would immediately become quiet. Where once there had been a feedback session among owners and managers, there were now intimidated children waiting to see how the fight between “Mom” and “Pop” would end.

The solution to these interesting problems is to bring the situation out into the open. I find that entrepreneurial couples who recognize that there will be “Mom” and “Pop” transference at the business between themselves and employees, are in a much better position to diffuse it. For example, Fran can gently remind the employee who seeks her protection from “Pop” that the employee is a capable adult that they hired to handle the job. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that Larry will be respectful and solution oriented regardless of the problem brought to him by the employee.

Larry may need more in depth discussions with the manager who constantly seeks his approval. Depending upon the personalities involved, Larry may even be able to bring the issue of a father-son parallel out in the open. For example, he might say, “You know, just because I’m the owner, doesn’t mean I know everything. It’s not like I am your dad or anything and you have to be perfect to please me. Relax and do your best. That’s what I pay you for.”

In the board room, I think Larry and Fran can be quite direct with their executive team. They may even have some training with their managers on the subject of the psychodynamics of business systems run by husband/wife teams, so when the transference blooms they can go right to the heart of the matter. For example, when an argument opens between Fran and Larry, they can look at the intimidated children/employees and joke, “Don’t worry. We won’t make you choose sides between ‘Mom’ and ‘Pop’.”

All businesses are human relationships first and product second. This is not just true of family firms, but is seen more poignantly in businesses where there is an overlap of family or couple system and the business system. Complicating things further is that employees bring lessons from their childhoods and their marriages into the work place and make meaning accordingly of the behavior of entrepreneurial couples. By recognizing this dynamic and developing ways of diffusing the counterproductive interpretations of “Mom” and “Pop”, entrepreneurial couples will be leagues ahead of their competitors.

To improve your skill at identifying when this kind of transference is happening, keep in mind these basic presuppositions about couple-owned and family-owned firms.

  1. Most people make psychological meaning of a situation at an emotional level first; a more rational, adult interpretation comes second.
  2. All entrepreneurial couples will be viewed as “Mom” and “Pop” by all employees at some time or another, whether you set it up that way or not.
  3. All of us learned about relationships and teamwork in our families of origin, so it is natural to return to those lessons in a setting that represents a family constellation.
  4. Your creativity is limited if you are playing a role, such as “Mom” or “Pop.” Step out of the role and become a fully functioning adult again, and your employee will also.
  5. If you have not resolved problematic relationships in your own family of origin, you will play them out at work, just as your employees do.

Some entrepreneurial couples have tried to solve the “Mom” and “Pop” problem by keeping their personal lives totally separate from their work. Others have opted out of couple entrepreneurship altogether. Still others have gone to the other extreme, where the business becomes their family, and they have no life outside of work. None of these options are necessary, however.

As an entrepreneurial couple, you are both spouses and business partners, sometimes alternating between these roles several times in one day. It is impossible to separate these worlds of home and work, when you work with the one you love. But it is possible to track which role currently is in the foreground. All you really need to do to keep the system humming is to ask yourself two questions:

  • Which role is in the foreground now?
  • Is this the most appropriate role for this context?