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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Dynamic Tension: Or, You're Standing on My Foot!

by Ira Bryck, Director, UMass Amherst Family Business Center

The term "dynamic tension" was first developed by comic book ad hunk Charles Atlas, describing how muscles meet resistance with his particular fitness equipment. Rock historians later borrowed the phrase to discuss the partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney; dynamic tension between them was the factor, aside from musical skill, that empowered their success as a team. The catalytic reaction of their different energies and personality styles, that one would imagine could only result in bickering and failure, created a product impossible to predict. But the notion that one works best with a conflict free colleague/clone, is to ignore how the world works to produce something bigger than the sum of the parts.

This is significant in light of the research that highlights that some two thirds of family owned businesses that will be transitioning power to the next generation (some say half of all family companies within the next decade)- either a parent to children or siblings to cousins- will seriously consider a shared leadership form of governance. We live in a culture that values egalitarian rule- our president is no king, today's model parent is more coach/mentor than ironclad royalty- it is no wonder that the assumption that a business requires a single leader is being questioned among siblings and cousins in business.

When hiring an assistant, or any staff associate, even picking a computer, it makes sense to think of creating clone of ones-self; an extension of how you think and act, that you can imbue with your zeal, your mission, your values. But it is hard to brainstorm with a yes-man; better to have someone with a different perception, to gain an increased perspective, to get out of yourself.

This is an important realization that might turn one of the problems of family business into a benefit. Tension and differences between family members in business can be so much more delicate and explosive than the mere annoyances of co-workers. And yet, if you and your kin can use that power for good...well, you might benefit from your competitiveness, rivalry, varied styles, and opposing interests and skill. What is required is tolerance, a new perspective, and a plan of how to co-operate the business.

Here are some hot tips and food for thought if you find yourself in need of an enhanced view of your untenable situation:

Get a second opinion ("OK- you're ugly, too") It always helps. Two partners were presenting their business plan to an audience of bankers, faculty, and students at a UMass business forum, boasting how well they co-existed. "What a pleasure! We agree on everything!" The audience was unanimous in its opinion that this duo go shopping immediately for a crotchety contrarian who could provide some much needed cold water. This team was too in love with its ideas.

Find your talent/love/niche There might be great value to starting in the mail room and sweeping the floors; you avoid resentment of non-family workers, and you are perceived as having roots and not being above doing what needs doing. But you need to concentrate on core competencies before too long. Where will you really add the maximum value to the company? Two brothers I know in the road paving business fell naturally into the "inside guy" and the "rainmaker." My father complimented their partnership by commenting that "John loads the gun and Pete pulls the trigger." They loved that odd appraisal and repeated it often. When they brought their kids in the business they skipped the mailroom and placed them exactly where they fit best.

Give credit where credit is due A couple in business was thriving, and worked hard developing the public persona of the wife (a la Frank Perdue as Mr. Chicken). The husband got not enough credit for all the behind-the-scenes support that kept the company liquid, vibrant, and in the news. It's the ironic reversal of the more common wife/bookkeeper who, if she were a man, would be called CFO. Imagine being Mr. Debbie Field's Cookies. The missing element here is recognition, a key implicit form of compensation. Many well paid executives leave companies 'cause they get no respect. A raise cannot retain them. They want appreciation, and will go work where it is available.

Know what your job isn't Entrepreneurs are not known for their delegation skills. As they progress from chief cooks and bottle washers to professionalized managers, you got to leave others to do their job. If you're in business with family, it's especially important to not step on toes of family members. Ernst and Ilse, co-preneurs of an arts summer camp, could not ever be cajoled or coaxed into making a decision about the other's sphere of influence. They therefore never got in trouble about overstepping their bounds.

Sometimes a title is just a title If you decide to share the office of the presidency with a family member, either because it's lonely at the top, or you want to send a message about teamwork, or prefer to think as a two headed leader, think it through. If one of you is going to quack like a president, you might as well be. It's not a bad thing, and it doesn't have to make your family relationship unequal, if done consciously. I respect a particular sibling team that switches titles every so often- they take turns as president and vice president- it works for them. In another case, a small gang of cousins dropped the variety of titles and now they all call themselves owners (and no more unequality of the President getting all the gifts and perks).

All I want to do is sell! Says a brother in the family business drama Perils of Pauline's Family Business (produced by the UMass Amherst Family Business Center, DramaWorks, and Valley Playback Theatre). Well, why shouldn't he? But then he should get paid to sell (and maybe get paid again to own). Sister wants to drive a truck? Good, she should get paid to drive a truck, etc. This is known in the field as earning your keep. If your family believes in equality, great! Just don't confuse their worth as a family member with their value to the company- people should get paid for what they bring to the cash register. Very few people create revenues because they are someone's brother- so don't pay them for it.

But I'm a Scientist, Not a Salesman Entrepreneurs generally love their job (doing stuff to make money), and are pleased that it's in line with their work (doing what you love and has meaning). Are you a chemist with the solution to the world's pollution crisis, but you can't sell for beans? And your brother reports that all he wants to do is sell? (see above) Serendipity! You may be a winner! Not all of us are so lucky- but where is it written that family should work together?

Looking at many of the expert opinions and happy families in business, I conclude that the vital ingredients for a successful family business include a healthy dose of Mazel (Luck, as in Mazel Tov); a healthy work ethic (no place for slackers); tolerance and good will (realizing that it's not easy); and a willingness to laugh at yourself (key to gaining new perspectives). Be prepared with these skills and assets if you plan on surviving in your family business.

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