Your Brother's Keeper

By Andrew J. Birol, President, Birol Growth Consulting

The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Examples leap to mind; Cain and Abel; Jimmy and Billy Carter; Bill and Roger Clinton; Michael and Fredo Corléone. In fiction (or politics) relationship troubles are interesting, but you don't want to bring them to the office. If a difficult family member or friend is part of your business, you won't just be unhappy—you might be out of work.

Let's face it, having a relative or friend in your business may sound like fun, but it doesn't always work. Whether you are partners with an old pal or inherited a wayward cousin as part of the firm, there may come a time when your kin or comrade strains your ability to lead. For example, what if he behaves in ways that are immature, incorrect, or illegal? (Think Roger Clinton). Not only does he earn no one's respect; because of your relationship, he reflects poorly upon you.

Something similar results from the “Fredo factor,” which can manifest in two ways. It may be a problem of fit, when despite his best efforts your loved one simply doesn't match with the culture of your company and its customers. Or he may be ineffective at the job—or every job—he's been given. If he can barely work within a function and certainly isn't management material, you may have a painful gap between what he wants and what you can afford to let him do.

Then there are the hanger-on types (Billy Carter), who take part in the business only for the lifestyle it affords them. When someone close to you, the leader, lacks motivation, it can drain the whole company. Even worse, your relative may turn out to be Cain; he goes through the motions without getting excited about the products, the customers, or the future. And he wastes your time grousing about how hard he works, how much time and money he is spending, and how many sacrifices he’s made at the altar of your success.

If it were anybody else, you'd know what to do, but how do you criticize/discipline/fire a friend or family member? First, you need to estimate the extent of the damage. Ask yourself how this person affects:

  • Your business: How would you rate his ability to handle staff, customers, money, vendors, or peers? Where is he most limited?
  • Your employees: Are they covering for him? Do they struggle to accommodate him because of his relationship to you, or perhaps even do his job?
  • You: You feel very alone and torn. You don't turn to him for help but rather accommodate, enable, and ultimately lie for him.

If the impact is negative, you need to make a change. On the theory that there is good in everyone, try to determine your problem child's Best and Highest Use. Does he have the organizational, people, or technical skills to perform some clearly-defined management role? Can he sell, administer, manufacture, or finance?

If these answers are all “no”, then perhaps he doesn't belong in the company. Is his passion or his skill set better suited for another business? Or is he more of a lover than a fighter? Not everyone belongs or is content in a commercial setting. He may be working the family business only because he feels an obligation to the family, or specifically to you.

Keep in mind that some of his mistakes or misbehavior could be symptoms of unhappiness. Lacking the self-confidence to leave or change, he may project his misery on you and your company. Worse yet, he is at risk for self destructive behavior. And if he's close to your parents or other family members, he likely will begin to play them off against you.

If your relative or friend would be happier somewhere else, your decision is easy: let him go, and give him your blessing. Cut him loose only after you have convinced him to follow his bliss, and your relationship can become a happy one. If, however, he shows a passion for your business, or if he shows a passion for nothing, you are left with a few options. You can:

  • Suffer: Decide that the devil you know is better than the devil you don7t. This may be your only option if the trouble is with a partner or a relative whom everyone expects to be part of the business. Accept the need for damage control.
  • Confront/change: While men over 40 rarely change, you may be able to get him to acknowledge his problem and its impact. Consult a professional; you don't want to do all the confronting yourself. By making him aware of the consequences of his behavior, you may get him to agree to some specific steps to improve things.
  • Reorganize/Redeploy: Restructure the company to accommodate his Best and Highest Use. If he doesn't really have one, you can at least reduce the negative impact he has.
  • Fire: Treat him like a normal employee by acting with your head, but implement with your heart. Some of his failings may result from his being a legacy, or from a lack of outside experience and training. Choose your words as if your mother was listening.

Hey, tough love begins at home. Working with family or friends is always a double-edged sword. In them you may see your own failings reflected, but you compensate with abundant loyalty and passion, right? It's not asking too much to expect the same level of commitment from people close to you.


Articles by Birol Growth Consulting are © copyrighted and all rights are reserved. However, articles may be reprinted with prior written consent if attribution is included as follows:

© Copyrighted by Andrew J. Birol, President of Birol Growth Consulting, who helps owners grow their businesses by growing their Best and Highest Use ®. Andy can be reached at (412) 973-2080, by email at abirol@andybirol.com, or on the web at www.andybirol.com.


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