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Speaking Truth to Power in Family Business

“How do I tell the CEO that her son, the Vice President, is derailing at work?” Jalen’s coaching topic was a family business classic... Speaking truth to power in family business feels risky.

Jalen shifted around in his chair. “On one hand,” he said, “her son, Marco, is responsible for a critical growth area of the business - International Sales. But because Marco was promoted early to give him much-needed experience, he is in over his head and needs help. He doesn’t yet have the business experience nor the interpersonal skills to navigate these international waters.” Jalen paused and looked out the window. He’d been CFO for almost a year, and this discomfort was a familiar feeling.

“The President could be helping Marco,” Jalen continued. “But the President wants Marco to learn from the school of hard knocks, which leaves Marco flailing in the wind. We have a short window to stay ahead of the competition, about fourteen months, so we don’t have time for Marco to learn the hard way. We need to fix this fast.”

Jalen shifted in his seat again, then turned to face me with wide eyes. “On the other hand, how do I tell the CEO that her son isn’t performing? I don’t want to get between a mother and her son. Will she get angry with me for thinking poorly of Marco? Will it tarnish her image of me? I really don’t want to get involved in a family issue.”

Jalen sat quietly for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders. “Should I or shouldn’t I say something to the CEO?”

The Opposing Mindsets of Business and Family

Does this scenario feel familiar? The rules of engagement in family businesses are often unclear due to the competing norms of business and family.

  • The business norms are clear: Get Marco help, and fast.

  • The family norms are clear: Don’t get involved in family matters – it can be a career limiting move.

As we talked through the situation, Jalen noticed that he considered this an either/or problem. Either he speaks truth to power in family business or he keeps his mouth shut. So instead, he decided to frame this challenge as a polarity and experiment with both/and thinking:

Polarity Map for Family Mindset and Business Mindset
Speaking Truth to Power in Family Business

Jaden closed his eyes and imagined what it would feel like to both fix an important problem and respect the parent/child dynamic. “Empowering and satisfying,” he said. Then he sat with the discomfort of his fears – that he could get crossways with the CEO or fail to address the business problem. Both outcomes felt quite vulnerable and highly undesirable.

Creative Ways of Speaking Truth to Power in Family Business

Soon, Jaden started to brainstorm strategies to integrate these opposing mindsets so he could enjoy the upsides of both: fixing the business problem and respecting the family dynamics. He came up with four possible strategies:

  • Convene a broader group of leaders, including the CEO and her son, to discuss the business problem and co-create a plan to resolve it.

  • Try to influence the President to provide greater guidance to Marco at this critical time in his development.

  • Take Marco to lunch to see how Marco feels about his performance, which may yield an opportunity to offer different kinds of support.

  • Send the CEO a report highlighting the international sales forecast, so she has the information she needs to take action.

Unsticking with Polarity Thinking

Jaden started our coaching session with an either/or problem and felt stuck in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation. Once he reframed his challenge as a polarity, he identified many different possibilities for resolution. Polarity thinking got him unstuck.

Where are you stuck in either/or thinking? What polarities are at play? What strategies can you experiment with to move forward?

Learn more about polarity thinking and how to apply it in family businesses in my upcoming book, Hug of War. (Publishing in July 2024.). Join my mailing list to tide you over until the book launches!

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