…Gaining credibility in the family business

So, You’re in the Family Business… by Paul Karofsky

Jeannie (older sister in a family business meeting): Ron (younger brother, in a loud voice): I said I’ve got an idea how we can solve that! I think we should…”

Jeannie: We heard your suggestion the first time. You don’t have to yell.

Ron: It sure doesn’t seem like it to me. Why don’t you like my idea? Like I said, I bet it will work. Tell me what’s wrong with it?

Ron reflects: “Sometimes I wish I had some gray hair. Maybe my family would listen to me better. It seems as if I have to yell just to be heard at all. I know I’ve got some good ideas but I swear every time I come up with one, it gets shot down. I may be younger and less experienced but I’d sure like to be heard at least as well as others in family business meetings. Why is it that the only way I can come close to getting heard is by yelling and that almost always starts an argument?”

While young people are not the only ones who have difficulty being heard in a family business, they do seem to be dismissed more readily just because they are young. Those of us approaching the south side of fifty and beyond may wish to deny it, but gray hair does seem have some advantages. Younger siblings and newcomers to the family business are frequently perceived by other siblings and parents as “the kid,” and, accordingly, are heard less. A lack of experience also begets a devalued voice which is perceived as worth less. The knowledge that accompanies the less experienced youth is also assumed to be less. So young people in a family business are frequently not heard with equal value and respect. The result is often a young family member whose loud voice, strains to be heard. Sometimes high volume and interruptions produce rejection which engenders frustration which creates louder and even stronger arguing and on and on…

Fortunately (or unfortunately) youth is not a life sentence. But short of waiting for time to pass, what options exist for young people struggling to be heard in their family business?

What to do:

Remember that you have two ears and one mouth. By spending some added energy listening very carefully to others, before offering your own ideas, you can observe alternate points of view and how others react to them. You can see what has appeal and what does not. You also gain some time to weigh differing opinions as you develop and clarify your own. All too often, we think that if we don’t get our ideas out right away, we will loose them. Make notes as you listen to others and prepare to speak. And seek the appropriate moment to add your contribution later rather than sooner.

Seek an ally. When possible, build on someone else’s argument or position. An approach like, “Bill presented a good idea and maybe if we…(adding your own contribution),” gives you a free ride on someone else’s pre-established credibility and acceptance. Even before hand, if you can, try out your ideas on someone else. This way you can test your thoughts for substance and quality and, if your test receives acceptance, gain the added bonus of having an ally when you enter the meeting. You could open with a shared position “Jody and I were talking…and…”. Avoid getting hung up on who gets the credit. Remember: shared success beats a solo failure.

Qualify your remarks. “This suggestion still needs lots of development, but…” lets others know you are not presenting a complete concept, that you have been thoughtful and are prepared to go beyond the surface. You can also be the one to point out some of the potential errors or weaknesses in your own ideas before someone else might do it with a statement like, “The rough numbers I’m presenting need to be reworked in greater detail and some assumptions need to be tested, but…” Qualified remarks can give you greater freedom for creativity in problem solving and even allow for “wild” ideas. Statements qualified with “This might be crazy but….” are seldom shot down by others, for you have already done it for them. By qualifying your own remarks, you can further qualify yourself in the family business.

Compliance and acquiescence are certainly not the prescribed behaviors for all situations. There are times when forcefulness is needed. There can also be a tapering off of these techniques as the younger presence is increasingly felt.

In a family business, consensus building becomes an integral part of problem solving, frequently requiring skill development in the group process. The struggle to be heard is endemic to family business, especially if you are young, but you will be surprised at how quickly the application of better listening skills, alliances and qualifiers enhances your credibility with others while you wait for grey hairs to grow.

Paul Karofsky was president of his family’s third generation business.  He completed graduate studies at Harvard University doing research in family communication styles.  Paul is Executive Director Emeritus of Northeastern University’s Center for Family Business and facilitates its Leadership Development Forum.  He is the Founder and CEO of Transition Consulting Group, Ltd and is a frequent speaker and resource to educational institutions worldwide.  Paul consults to family enterprises and can be reached at [email protected] or 561-626-1110.

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