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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Highest and Best Use

by Ira Bryck

I am still basking in the afterglow of the final performance of my third family business play, “Tough Nut to Crack,” gratified about viewers who related to the characters and their dilemmas, and who noted that it was “life-like,” which is comforting, as it was autobiographical.

One recent spectator mentioned that, knowing it was my personal story, I am proof that there is “life after family business.” Considering how many business family members differentiate between life in their family’s company, versus life in the “real world,” those who do “get out” might relate to Pinocchio, who left home with many strings attached, to explore a new life in the flesh.

Pinocchio’s freakish journey aside, mine has served me well. In my former life as hawker of childrenswear, I wondered (as did my namesake actor) “Would children go naked if not for me?” I wanted meaning from my work, just as Freud prescribed. Who is content turning a crank, even in return for a check? Even if your grandmother was OK with endless cranking (maybe a vast improvement over her parents’ churning), does legacy mean never falling too far from the family tree?

My post-family employment is personally meaningful, even invigorating, but it might not be for you. I know 100 family business center directors; we are not all equally fulfilled, not all similarly hearing our calling. And I know many heirs apparent who are yearning to hear their calling, even a still, small, voice saying, “you fit here.”

I contend there are few great reasons to join your family business: It’s your infatuation. For you, it’s over-brimming with relevance, and you are abundant with flair. You are unmistakably genetically linked to generations of inspired builders. Or your family was utterly effective in nurturing your reverence for healing the sick, or burying the dead, if your family isn’t healers.

Or there’s just no way you could ever do as well anywhere else. You all know it, why deny it? Your family is nobly employing you in a position superior to what you’d hope to achieve elsewhere. And you’re doing well enough, maybe really well. If honesty is good policy, don’t grovel, just be humble and grateful. Many of our families gave us a boost. It’s evolution, allowing us to achieve our highest and best use. Our families proclaim eminent domain, and as a result, our work is a solid homestead, where there may have been a shed.*

But ask yourself: Is my work-life as productive and healthy as I need it to be? Maybe you think you’d be as stressed and unfulfilled in any job. I’m certainly not suggesting you quit, but I’ve seen many people feel more valuable and satisfied doing even the exact same job without siblings and parents making everything so very complex.

No matter your circumstance, it helps for business families to invest in some cleansing, honest discussion. Your family business may be harboring talented, passionate people, but not for your product or service. Are you yearning to breath free, in a different huddle? Consider not leaving well enough alone, IF well enough is not good enough.

Though it may seem better to leave sleeping dogs lie, the conversation is often not as brutal as what everyone’s thinking behind everyone’s backs. Thoughtfully examining such issues as “Does my work fulfill me, or just pay the bills?” “If I am not being all I can be, how can I?” “What is my special quality that I can bring to this company, to better the business and myself?” “How can I evolve my work into something more gratifying and valuable?” “If I can’t make it here, can I make it anywhere? Where?”

You may conclude that everything is as it should be. Great. But life is too short to not be at your highest and best use, meaning highest and best you.

* this does not constitute an endorsement of the recent Supreme Court ruling dealing with eminent domain

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