Business associates or children?
Question submitted by M.I.:
My husband, Josh, and I own a poultry farm/contract growing operation founded by his dad. Josh and I ran it together for 10 years after Dad retired. We brought our son, Will, and his wife, Donna, into ownership three years ago.
We have two farms: the original operation and a new farm Josh is developing in Missouri. I do the bookkeeping for both farms.
Will has managed the Arkansas houses mostly on his own because Josh has been focused up north.
It sounds like a perfect family farm, and it should be. But it's not.
We thought that ownership would cement Will and Donna's commitment. It did, but they also got some big ideas. Will and (especially) Donna started resisting and avoiding me almost as soon as we made the ownership change.
Six months ago, we had to decide to either renovate or replace the houses here at the home farm. We approved (3 to 1) a budget to rebuild (I voted against because of the risk). Josh told Will to get the plans and construction started.
At a weekly meeting two months later, I asked Will how the plans were coming, and all I got from him was, "Fine." When I pressed him, he wouldn't reply, as much as saying: "None of your business." I was upset and asked when we, as a board, would see and approve the plans.
Josh said, "We already approved the budget. How the houses are built is Will's job."
I was angry and humiliated. There have been hot times at home. Doesn't Will need approval from his partners on something as big as building designs? Why won't Josh see my point?
Dr. Jonovic's response:
Confusing family with business roles can mix parent/child and business reporting relationships into a dangerous brew.
Will (and Donna, who surely supports him) is struggling for independence from his parents' "meddling" in his job. To him, even a small opening threatens to turn into a because-we-say-so takeover.
M.I., just as naturally, feels the need to oversee her child's behavior, to protect him and the family, and yes, her own authority.
Josh is trying to run the business and keep family peace. And he's failing at both.
With truth on all sides, it's hard to sort out. But trying to think like unrelated business associates is a start.
A board member knows a manager must be free to act if he or she is to be responsible for decisions. But a board member never gives up control over major capital expenditures.
A manager knows that it's necessary to keep the boss and the board in the loop to keep their confidence and, ultimately, his or her job. A manager can expect autonomy but not total freedom.
Any CEO knows that it's important not only to keep investors and board members comfortable and informed, but also to protect subordinates from micromanagement.
Separating emotions from business decisions can never be complete. Still, suspending family roles and adopting real business roles when defining reporting relationships helps to douse the flames under the family stewpot.