One of the biggest challenges in family business is that you don’t have a natural peer network. You don’t often run into neighbors, friends at the gym, parents of your kids’ friends who own family businesses. In your daily life, you don’t get a chance to talk shop.
If you do talk about it with your friends who don’t own family businesses, they probably think you’re being ungrateful if you express frustration about it. After all, you’ve been given an amazing gift. Why would you complain about it? And why aren’t you working there? Why aren’t you working as hard as you can to make the business better? It can be awkward, too, talking with your friends about dividends, which a lot of families give out to their family members. Many people never talk with their non-family business-owning friends about any of these things, and it can feel very isolating.
It may be even more isolating if your family business is a very large employer, or even the single largest employer, in the town in which you live. Then you have no peers at all, and you really shouldn’t talk about the challenges of being a business owner with friends in your community.
All family businesses deal with the same challenges and opportunities, and yet without building a deliberate network, it can feel like their problems are unique. Realizing that your family isn’t the only one facing a similar set of problems, or maybe even that your family’s problems aren’t as bad as someone else’s, can be a great relief.
What can you do to build a network where you can actually talk with somebody?
As a fourth generation family member of my family’s business, I moved away from the small town where my family’s business was the single largest employer. Once I had moved to a large city in another region, I didn’t feel the same kind of pressure and visibility as I experienced in that small town. But I still didn’t have anyone who understood what it was like being part owner in a family business.
Then I went to the Loyola University Chicago Family Business Center’s Stewardship Institute. That was the first time that I had a chance to talk very openly and frankly about my experiences. I was able to discuss the challenges that come with being part of a family-owned business, and even discuss the nitty-gritty of family business dividend policies–things that in the past I would only talk about with my husband.
The experience also helped me realize that my family didn’t have the worst problems on the planet. When you start talking with other families, two really good things that happen.
One is you don’t feel so alone. The other is that you walk away with a greater sense of gratitude after realizing that you don’t have the worst problems. Perhaps your family has done a lot of work compared with other families. Perhaps you now realize that you wouldn’t trade your problems for another family’s problems because at least you know how to deal with them.
The best way to build a network of other family businesses is to go to events at a local family business center. To overcome your feeling of isolation, make a commitment to go to every event and sit by somebody new every time. If you go with family members, agree that you’re not going to stick together in a clump but really branch out.
It’s also useful to go to family business conferences, such as Family Business Magazine’s Transitions conferences and Family Business Network conferences. If you live in the US, family business conferences are so plentiful that you could go to once almost once a month. Again, if you attend conferences with other family members, don’t stick too close together. Spread out and focus on building relationships with people outside your family.
I suggest that you walk into a conference with a question that you want answered. Every time I go, I walk in deciding, for example, that I want to know how other people handle board meeting attendance. I’ll ask every single person I talk to how they’ve dealt with that challenge. I walk away with deeper knowledge, but I also have a list of people I can call later on.
Bring a big stack of business cards and follow up with every single person. From every conference I’ve been to, I have a list of people I’ll check in with once or twice a year and see how things are going, what they’re working on, what their challenges are. It’s a nice way to keep in touch and share experiences.
The only person who can make you feel less alone is you. There are resources out there designed to help family businesses develop a network of trusted advisors and even friends. All you have to do is take advantage of them.