Should Family Members Work for Family Business? Answering Two Critical Questions

Building and maintain a family business takes hard work. There is often the expectation that the next generation will take the business to the next level.

As we all know, expectations and reality don't always coincide. I’m here to tell you that it’s OK!

There are numerous examples of family businesses thriving under non-family member management. There are also many reasons why not every family member should stay and work for the business.  

Take Market Basket for example, a New England grocery chain that went through an ugly family feud that ended up costing the business $583 Million in lost sales. The feud over control between two cousins almost put the large chain out of business.

Than there is a well known automotive company, Fiat, that went through a very hard financial times, five CEOs and three chairmen in two years (all family members), before bringing in an outsider to lead it.

Stories like Market Basket and Fiat tell us that not all family members should work for a family business.

In today’s blog we’ll look at 2 critical questions every family member should ask himself before joining the family business.

Honest answers to these two simple questions can protect the individual and the business from making a big mistake, while assuring optimal growth opportunities for both.


What’s My Motivation?

Motivation is that internal “why” that drives everything we do.  We may not always be in tune with our motives, yet if we look deep enough, there is always a reason why we do what we do.

We overeat because our internal desire for immediate gratification is stronger than the desire for long-term health. We get into debt because our internal drive to meet certain lifestyle is stronger than living within our means. We could go on, but you get the point.

Every family member who’s considering the opportunity to join his or her family business should do some soul searching and ask: What’s my motivation?

Is it:

Desire for security with little accountability?

Desire for personal financial gain?

Desire for control?


Or, is it:

Desire to put personal gifts and talent into work?

Desire to cultivate shared values?

Desire to contribute and grow the business?


Motivation, even though invisible, will have visible and lasting consequences, so let’s not ignore it! It will show up in ways we manage business finances, in ways we treat employees, and in ways we recognize and take advantage of opportunities.


What’s My Contribution?

It often takes different skills to start a business than to sustain and grow a business.

Entrepreneurs and starters are often not the ones who have what it takes to propel the family business to the next level.

Understanding your unique gifts and skills will help you determine whether you’re wired to stay in the family business, and if so, at what capacity.

A survey conducted by Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and the researcher Deborah Bell, shows that family business boards gave themselves much lower performance ratings than members of nonfamily boards, especially in the area of talent management. What the research showed is that many family-member operated boards recognized that, just because someone is a family member, that does not make him or her an automatic winner in terms of managing and growing a family business.

Evaluating your strengths and weaknesses, as well as well as your tangible skills against what’s needed to keep the family business healthy and thriving will help protect both you as an individual as well as the business from failure.


There is no Right or Wrong

There is no one proven formula for family businesses to deal with the age-old dilemma of family members working for the family business. There are many rewards as well as many pitfalls along the way.  Decisions need to be made carefully and as objectively and unemotionally as possible.

Working your way up instead of starting at the top could be a great way to learn, develop character and needed skills in order to do what’s best for the sustainability of the business.

Saying no to a family business is also ok, especially when you recognize that your skills or values do not align with the needs of the business.

In other cases family members will fit very well inside of the business and will be able to not only maintain but also grow it.

The key is to be honest, ask enough questions and take pride, ego and emotions out of the decision making process!