My 15-year-old nephew dropped a wisdom bomb on me last week: Treat ‘em like a celebrity, they’ll treat you like a fan.
This came two weeks after he caught his first-ever girlfriend cheating, and this mantra was the latest brick in the wall he was laying around his heart. His love had been pure. Fully surrendered, he had been imagining their lives together when a social media post outed her. Cue heartbreak.
I find it fascinating to witness the human condition unfolding in action.
So, what does this have to do with family business leadership, you ask?
Treat ‘Em Like a Parent, They’ll Treat Ya Like a Child
Jessica came to coaching with this: She and her father were constantly fighting at work, and her brother recommended she push her dad out. After some discussion, she set her coaching goal to be “how to work with your parents when you’re the boss.”
After graduating at the top of her medical school class, Jessica joined her mother’s dermatology practice with the expectation that she would buy the business from her mother when she turned 40. The succession went great, but the work relationship with her father quickly soured.
A 68-year-old retired CPA, her father had always kept the books for his wife’s practice, and after the transition to Jessica, he stayed on to help at the front office as well. He was a great asset to the business, but Jessica was frustrated because he refused to take her direction on much of anything. For example, when she asked for a price update from the pharmacy, he’d tell her she didn’t need it. But she knew she did. He would do things his way, regardless of what she requested, and it was her business!
Early in our coaching conversations, Jessica shared that she often broke into tears when speaking with her father. Dumbfounded, her father would ask “What are you crying for?” It got so difficult for Jessica that she determined that she had three options. 1) Sell the practice back to her mother; 2) Sell the practice to a private equity rollup; or 3) Figure out how to work together. She really wanted to make #3 work but didn’t know how.
It was the tears that caught my curiosity. While exploring the trigger for the tears, Jessica realized that she was treating her father like a father, not like a professional peer. She would approach him with a whiny voice and pleading eyes, “I know you don’t approve of my decision to hire a coach. Can you just print the check for me anyway?” In response, her father would get huffy. She’d get angry. Then she’d cry because she was the owner of this business dang it, and she couldn’t get her father to do his job without a fight.
“How would you make a request of any other employee in the office,” I asked? That question evoked a shift in her perspective. She reflected for a few moments, then turned to me, her eyes wide, realizing that she was speaking to her father as if she were a kid, not an adult. Her childhood communication pattern had crept into her workplace communication with him. She didn’t address him as the confident, 40-year-old professional that she is. She spoke like a whiny kid.
For the next week, Jessica practiced being intentional with her communication with him. She planned how she’d communicate if she were speaking with another dermatologist in the office, then she’d bring the same tone, the same words, the same energy to communicate with her father. Friendly, clear, confident. She’d begin with, “I have a request.”
To her genuine surprise and eventual delight, the relationship with her father did an instant 180. She stopped crying, and he responded positively to her requests. All this time, she had been trying to change her father, but what she really needed to do was to change herself. She learned that when you treat ‘em like an adult, they treat ya like one back.
How to Work With Your Parents When You’re the Boss
Leadership in a family business can be a complex dynamic because there are always two opposing norms in play. Whereas the Business Mindset is driven by reason, the Family Mindset is driven by emotion, and the Family Mindset has a long history. When you work with family members, it’s awfully easy to fall into the communication norms from childhood.
To work with her parents without devolving into tears, Jessica changed her mindset from “I’m a kid asking my dad for help” to “I’m an adult making a request of an adult.” The reframe was easier than she expected, and when she acted like a peer to her father, her father responded as a peer.
Well guess what? The inverse is just as true: Treat ‘em like a child, they’ll treat ya like a parent. It may feel unnatural to change the communication norms you’ve known all your life. Try it anyway and let me know how it goes.
I’m still beta testing the family business polarity assessment so leaders can see how well they are leveraging the most common tensions in family business leadership. To access the assessment, join my mailing list and check the box next to “Please send me the complementary family business assessment.”
To learn more about polarity thinking and how to apply it in family businesses, join my mailing list. That should tide you over until Hug of War: How to Lead a Family Business With both Love and Logic is released in July 2024!