By training your family employees well, you'll give them what they need to make sound decisions after you retire.
Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

Family-owned businesses can be both a blessing and a curse. On the blessing side, they generate wealth, create jobs and often prioritize serving their communities and donating their time or resources to better the areas surrounding their companies. On the flip side, family relationships can suffer damage so severe it can rip a business — and the family — apart. Additionally, contentious or preferential family relationships can place employees in high-stress, no-win positions.

Founders of successful family businesses are almost always passionate, hardworking, and have business savvy, as is evidenced in our industry; things work well with them at the helm. This mindset is often handed down to the next generation. Sometimes, what comes easily to the founder isn’t necessarily a given with ensuing leaders. Whether you are an owner of a family business or a leader in the company, the following are keys to ensuring long-term success:

1. Educate and empower employees to make fact-based decisions. If you want your business to outlive you, you must pass on the knowledge you possess. Mentor and train individuals on what you look for and how you make decisions. Allow them to shadow you for as long as possible. They can act as “consultants,” jotting down their observations and suggestions on improvements. Teach them how and where to gather the facts and information necessary to make the best possible decision.

Before you turn them loose, have them present the information they’ve gathered with a recommended course of action. If they are spot on, they are ready to make that type of decision in the future. If they are missing key points, guide them through a reevaluation process and have them continue shadowing you. Keep in mind that they will make mistakes, just as you did and still do. What’s critical to pass on is what to do after a mistake is made.

2. Treat family like other employees. It is extremely easy to fall into the trap of giving family members preferential treatment. If you want other employees to respect them, you must treat them fairly and hold them to the same high hiring, training and qualification standards as everyone else. Often, independent garden centers will require outside experience, a college education in a related field and/or specific training before the family members can take over the company. Slacking off here not only causes resentment, it also leaves family members ill-equipped with both the skills and work ethic they will need to take over the business. It is important to treat family members with the same patience and respect you give other employees.

3. Develop and pass on conflict resolution and problem solving-skills. A key indicator that there will be problems in future generations is when family members and other employees fall into the trap of using the founder as the “tie-breaker” for disagreements. While it may be quicker for you to make decisions in the short term, doing so is not helpful to employee growth or your company’s long term wellbeing.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your business is the ability to successfully navigate conflicts and problems. Family member or not, it is counterproductive and unacceptable to yell, curse or belittle others in or out of the workplace. If destructive behaviors are occurring in your organization, they need your immediate attention. If it is systemic, you’ll probably need to bring in a consultant to help you. Until destructive behaviors are eradicated, anxiety and mistrust will negatively impact short and long-term success.

Dr. Sherene McHenry works with organizations that want to boost their Leadership IQ so they can enhance effectiveness, increase employee engagement and raise productivity. sherenemchenry.com.