The Happy Family Business: Not as Easy as It Looks

by Ira Bryck

It took Tolstoy one thousand pages to recount the tale of War and Peace, but a one liner to summarize the emotional landscape of the family: “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Consider that 90% of America’s companies are owned and operated by families; and that, according to both radio psychologist Joy Browne and personal growth expert John Bradshaw, 95-97% of all families are dysfunctional. There’s no denying that our economy and work lives are heavily influenced by the classic – yet unique – manifestations of family business distress.

At the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley and growing up in a family business, I’ve been both amused and astonished by the abundance of real life dramas, each rich with wisdom, foolishness, hope, fear, passion, and ennui. While one could view them as stereotypes, every tale of woe is as unique as a snowflake.

What has been particularly fascinating to observe is the relatively rare (but not endangered) Happy Family in Business. Viewing them as an elite species, I wonder if Tolstoy was on track: is there an “alikeness” that sets the high functioning business family apart from the rest of us?

While not a scientific study, I’d have to say: Yes!, the happy business family possesses particular characteristics that inevitably contribute to business success and a climate of positivity. And they make it look so easy and natural! You can really appreciate it when you are the typical family business, struggling with hearty portions of conflict, harmful assumptions, poor planning, divergent goals… it’s both inspiring and frustrating to see how transcendent and elegant is that uncommon breed of business owning family who:

  • invests the time and takes the risk to share their thoughts and feelings. Through hard work and natural inclination, they are high in that fashionable yet timeless quality of emotional intelligence; arming the family with ample amounts of trust, goodwill, and respect. They bring to their business an inimitable quality of family-ness.
  • instinctively understands the need for formal governance structures: they err on the side of professionalism, creating policies to handle such delicate issues as compensation, job evaluation, objective outside advice, growth and risk, transition of leadership, and ownership. They define clear boundaries to separate business issues from personal issues, and , as a result, treat the business like a business and the family like a family.
  • appreciates the formidable challenge of being a family in business, and becomes students of the subject. They read the literature, attend the forums, have the discussions that inoculate them from creeping dysfunction. They further immunize their family by insisting that only interested, capable, necessary family members need apply, explaining that the business is not the family’s welfare office or employment agency.
  • benefits from that certain je ne sais quoi known in Yiddish as “Mazel” (luck). My father swears by it; “to succeed in business, you gotta have Mazel.” Thomas Jefferson looked at this magic factor and concluded “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” My guess is that while the highly functioning family business would describe themselves as lucky, they would describe themselves first as working very hard to achieve their goals.

My experience has shown that the vast majority of family businesses muddle through, trying to make the best of the situation. They feel that all the recommended formality and structure feels stilted and uncomfortable. But face facts: these are the “best practices” that have brought success to families graced with many qualities you wish you had! If they are doing the work, how likely is it that you will have their success with no effort? So even if it feels like “fake it till you make it,” once you start experiencing family business ownership as a competitive edge instead of a ball and chain, you’ll be proud of what your family business was able to accomplish