Family Business Problems Have Real Solutions: Get Clear - Clear and Open

From Inundation To Transformation

2016 was a huge year for my client, Brian, and I want to honor his transformation.

Brian and his wife, Kim, own a landscaping and snow removal company. They came to me in July of 2014 with a list of serious problems in their family business. They were both working about eighty hours a week. Their people didn’t work hard enough and they had a very hard time finding good workers. Quality was low. Their people needed constant supervision. For all their hard work, they weren’t profiting enough, but they weren’t sure what their statements told them. Brian was the CEO, and Kim in an office manager role didn’t feel he listened to her. The constant tension between them combined with the hard work of the family business was a serious energy drain.

There was a lot of content to address. I helped them get their financials organized, create position agreements, job ads, etc. But what transformed this family business was a shift in the context: the end of the family business.

There was actually only one problem: that a husband and wife were running a business rather than two business people who happened to be married.

When we addressed this problem, slowly but surely, everything shifted. The most significant change was Brian stepping down as CEO and letting Kim lead the company. It came out that not only was Brian not good at managing people, but didn’t have any interest in it, nor did he have the interest in the strategic work of a business. He just wanted to sell (which he is great at).

The logical move was to have the organization chart reflect that–to reflect reality. Emotionally, this wasn’t easy for Brian, but I held him to it. He exited our meetings indefinitely and I worked only with Kim as the CEO for about nine months. I held Brian accountable to what he said he wanted, as there was no reason for him to be in our meetings if he didn’t want to be a manager. It was a difficult transition for Brian, as he learned to embrace consequences and live in reality. But it was also relief for him, and sales and his mood improved because he was doing what he loved. He was becoming whole, somehow.

Before this, he couldn’t track his inner contradictions. He had wanted to be the boss but not have the responsibility that came with it. He wanted to manage but not look at where he could improve. He wanted people to follow orders but not look at how he wasn’t modeling responsible behavior. For a while, it was a real question whether Brian would transform, but I had an intuition and a lot of trust.

Brian has an incredible heart. Despite how conflicted his thinking could be, I never stopped feeling his passion, drive, and real human care. I hoped that would somehow carry him through.

Family Business: Two Words That Don’t Go Together

We dismantled the family business. I spent a lot of time coaching Kim on how to manage Brian just like she would any employee. Brian resisted the boundaries at first. He liked the family business. He leaned on Kim as his manager either too much for support, or didn’t ask for help when he should, depending on the situation. It took months for Brian to accept that Kim really could help him, and for Kim to offer her help in a way he could receive it. They both learned to be husband and wife in one setting and boss and employee in another, not mixing the two. Brian was skeptical at first, but Kim continued to stand for and model the domain separation, and together they ended the family business.

It’s impossible to capture the myriad places we went. At one point, I worked with Brian one-on-one to help him find his own goals and dreams, a method to discover the center he would surely need to become a great manager. By allowing Brian to be free from management for a while, he was able to re-approach it from a new perspective and learn management from scratch, without the pressure of leading the company. He started to show a real interest in how to do it, and an ability to introspect not seen before.

And then one day, we got on the phone and I was talking to a different person.

A veil had lifted. Whereas before Brian contradicted himself often, and was defensive when it was pointed out, now he was clear. His heart-strength came through. He was decisive most of the time, and when unclear, had the fortitude to look straight at it. He asked for help, and when held accountable for helping himself, he did so without argument and excuses. He’d found his courage. He’d found his spine. This was the leader the business needed: no longer reluctant, no longer resentful, he looked at business problems like he looked at a sale now. He asked, “What can I do? How can I change?” whereas before he asked  “Why is it so hard?” and “What’s the easy way out?”

While both Kim and I put a lot of work to help Brian transform, Brian gets the lion’s share of the credit. I’ve seen many people stuck like this before choose to stay comfortably stuck, and Brian finally embraced the discomfort he’d been resisting all along and let it change him. And let’s honor Kim as well, it would not have worked without her constant, but gentle pressure on Brian to change. She is a natural manager and could easily be a coach herself.

They both work just about forty hours a week now. They’ve consolidated their workforce so revenue is temporarily down, but profit as a percentage is way up, reflecting their increased efficiency and lowered overhead. Most importantly, their relationship is alive, healthy, and vibrant. As an expression of that, they’re poised to build a new business now, built on a healthy foundation now that the unhealthy one is dismantled. The family business is gone, so the business can thrive.

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