When you’re not ‘family’ in a family-run business

HomeColumnWhen you’re not ‘family’ in a family-run business

family-run businessIn the flooring industry, it’s common to find family-run retail stores, especially among the independent dealers. Whether it’s through succession, nepotism or convenience, family-run business seems to be a natural fit for floor covering businesses.

But what happens if you, as an employee, are not related to the principals, managers or other personnel with family ties to the business? Surviving a family business without being family requires a whole different strategy than being an employee. That’s not to say that being part of a family business can’t be taxing even if you’re related to the owners in some way. However, when you’re not family you don’t have to relive issues over every dinner. It’s difficult for families to separate work issues from family issues. Often the two get intertangled. Something that may have been decided with staff in the store during the day might be overturned when the family gets together over dinner at night.

You’ve certainly heard the expression, “Blood is thicker than water.” Simply put, familial bonds will always be stronger than any other relationships.

So, how do these “outsiders” survive in a family business? Here are some suggestions:

Understand the hierarchy. I know several family-owned businesses where the children are in positions of high-level decision makers, but everything must go through their parents who are in their later years. Know who has the power to make the final decisions.

Make sure it’s a cultural fit. If you are looking to join an existing retail operation, especially at a managerial level, find out if the owners encourage or support an inclusive management structure. The ideal situation for an outsider might be a scenario where there’s a “board of directors” in place that comprises both family and non-family members. This shows a willingness to keep the business neutral and listen to others who—we hope—are there because of their expertise.

Be clear about your own path. What do you really want? And is it realistically reachable? Can you reach the level you want, or will you have to leave at one point? Decide how far you want to go in the business and decide if it’s achievable. If you can’t see a clear path to your own greatness, you should look elsewhere.

Stay in the neutral lane. Be careful to not get involved or take sides in any family misunderstanding or dispute. The family will always win and likely protect one another no matter how much they disagree. Also, you may be accused of putting one family member against another. Remember, as an outsider, you might not be aware of events that have transpired in the past. Knowing how to play office politics is extremely important, especially when families are involved. The more neutral you can be, the better. Anything else can turn around at one point and bite you in an uncomfortable place.

Avoid ‘stealing’ the credit. There’s no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in “family” and “hierarchy.” While it might be tempting to bask in the spotlight of a personal accomplishment on the job—especially if that achievement contributes directly to the bottom line—it’s important to frame it in a way that emphasizes the efforts of the collective.

Outsiders who often outshine family members who are in a high-level management position could be perceived as a threat—fairly or unfairly.


Lisbeth Calandrino has been promoting retail strategies for the last 20 years. To have her speak at your business or to schedule a consultation, contact her at lcalandrino@nycap.rr.com.

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May 9/16, 2022

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