[Podcast] 5 Things to Watch Out For Before Joining the Family Business


Working for your family puts you in a very particular situation: it can potentially be very tricky but also very fulfilling.

In this podcast episode, Tharawat Magazine Editor-in-Chief Ramia El-Agamy shares some of the challenges you are likely to experience as she talks about the 5 things you should know before joining the family business:

To read the original article, click here.


James: Right now I’m staring at an article that you wrote for Tharawat Magazine a few weeks ago and it was a very well received article. I think it’s the most popular article we’ve ever published on the Tharawat Magazine website. Ironically enough, it’s called Five Things You Should Know Before Joining Your Family Business so obviously I’m assuming for family business readers, this meant a lot to them because it’s very relevant to what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling so let’s walk through the five things you should know before joining the family business.

In a way, this is also if you went back seven years ago and once again talked to young Ramia, so you have these five things that young Ramia should know before working with her family so let’s walk through that. The first point you make is – You don’t know your family. What do you not know about your family?

Ramia: The first piece of advice I give to people before joining the family business is I tell them ‘OK guys you don’t know these people’ and they look at me like ‘what do you mean? This is my family I grew up with them’ but it’s like no no no no choosing the family business is not choosing familiarity. This is not true. Do you know why, because people in their private setting and people at work is a world of difference. I’m not saying that essentially you’re a different person with different values but I’m saying that our behaviour adapts to the circumstances so if I’m in a business context, I will behave in certain ways that will make me more authoritarian or will make me more intolerant in other respects.

Whereas at home, I would be totally soft about these issues and I wouldn’t care, I would let it go past me so the first wrong assumption next-gen members to make in both the positive and the negative is they think that they know the people that they’re going to be working with just because their family. You don’t.

James: The second thing you should know before joining your family business, as you write, is your family doesn’t know you.

Ramia: Like I said before if you want to be successful in your family business from the get-go, the first thing is don’t expect to know who these people are in the workplace just because you know who they are at home and the second is make sure that doesn’t happen to you either. So go in there and understand there might be a mutual shock, they’re going to be just as shocked by your professional behaviour as you are by theirs.

So give that some time to settle down and make sure you don’t slip into body language and expressions that are too familiar in the workplace. I mean you don’t have to make it all stiff and everything because some of the familiarity is what makes it so fun and comfortable but learn to draw lines at the same time so when it comes to work, we don’t fall into too many of the familiar family patterns.

James: The third thing is you don’t know the business. Isn’t that a given?

Ramia: No, if you look at most of the interviews we’ve done in the past, most of them start with ‘I’ve been going to the family factory since I was a little girl or little boy, my parents used to take me to the office or I used to be part of the family council since the age of three’. There is this assumption that because we are proud of being part of the family business or it’s been useful to us in some shape or form, that we actually know what it’s about.

However, we could never forget that when we observe the family business from the outside, we do get a family perspective whatever is said and done as part of the owning family. So when you come into the business, get to know the business as a business. Don’t view it as your property or only through the lens of the emotional attachment of the family.

This is a really big distinction to make because you might be confronted with the fact that you’re coming to your business and you realize that’s great there’s heritage and everything but for instance, we’re behind in certain things, from a business perspective or we should be streamlining or we should be reducing costs. Or on the contrary, we are extremely ahead of time in certain things and that should be accentuated in communicating the business so these are all things that I mean. It’s actually the whole article, it’s all five points and at the end of the day, it comes down to – don’t be prejudiced. Not towards the business, and not towards your family members and not towards yourself either.

James: You probably need that perspective before you come in with certain assumptions because it’s not an extension of your family in the purest sense, it is a company in a business after all so that something that you definitely need to look at.

Ramia: Never forget that this may be your family’s business and you may see it from the shareholders perspective, but there’s like tons of other people involved in running a company so this is not just your show, this is something that involves many other people whom you’re responsible for and so setting up a role model priority on things working well and fairly will pretty much guarantee that you’ll still be there in the long run and will also integrate well into the family business.

James: The fourth point that you mention kind of ties in with that and it says – You will change your definition of success many times over.

Ramia: Many times, James – like so many times! For me I think there were times when I changed almost on a weekly basis. The way we define success in the family business is fairly individual of course, it depends very much on the family but sometimes because of the long term orientation of what we do, we define success maybe differently from the fast-paced environment we live in now, right. We are so extremely influenced by Silicon Valley companies and that kind of corporate thinking still even though we all know the consequences of too much of that inflatable behaviour. Of course, it is just a more attractive when you hear about multi billion dollar buyouts it’s got to get you thinking that they’re doing something right.

However, when you look at family business models very often what you see is the success is actually the other thing, the more quiet thing where buy you’ve managed to maintain 150 employees for the last 50 years. And you’ve been able to grow consistently your market share by 2% every year. It’s not exciting, it’s not exponential and certainly not very visible, but it’s good business. That is something I think where you just have to manage expectations towards yourself and towards the business so you come in as a young member, you should come in with energy you should come in with tons of ideas and you should push them all but you have to understand that it’s not going to be about how many of those get implemented but how well you understand what constitutes success for this particular family business and for yourself.

Is there a match there because if in the long run you can’t identify with the way the business of your family is successful or needs to be successful then you might just be one of those people who are just not a match in your family business and that’s OK as long as you recognize it. In my opinion, not everybody needs to go into the family business at all, it should not be like a given or mandatory or entitlement for that matter.

James: And that in itself is the definition of success, right? Just because you’re a member of the family doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re destined to take it over or take it another 40 or 50 years. You might have somewhere else to go where your talents can be used so that’s not necessarily something that has to happen within the family business and that takes us to the last thing you should know about joining your family business which is – you won’t be able to six separate work from emotions so don’t even try. It seems very wise.

Ramia: That’s my favorite. Do you know why, it’s because it’s just so true. I actually think it’s true in any workplace but I think the family just sort of amplifies it because of the family ties but you know what, as long as you work with human beings, you’re going to have to deal with emotions. And you know what, I don’t agree with this whole attitude about bringing everything from home to work, that is not your place, you’re here to work.

But when you have people work together, there’s bound to be stuff happening and there’s bound to be emotions in the room and I think denying that is borderline delusional and doesn’t make any sense. In a particular case of the family business, I think for a very long time we’ve been taught to think that the successful family business is the one that keeps emotions separate and I think that has been a massive mistake because instead of understanding that those emotions are in the room and that we need to leverage them and we need to actually either confront them and put them in their place in a way that they don’t interfere anymore, we just said ‘OK if you’re emotional, you can’t be in the family board or can’t be in the family business.

James: Because it’s going to lead to fights and that’s going to be unprofessional so just keep that out if the workplace.

Ramia: Exactly, and that’s not possible. You brought up the example of your father before, I’m sure he deals with plenty of emotions on a daily basis even a multinational but I think what’s really, really important is that you realize that there’s going to be a huge amount of irrational remarks between family members in the workplace, it’s just what it is. You’ll find it very rare that all the family members will know exactly how to deal with each other from the get go. You’ll get remarks, and I’ve heard it, from parents who comment on their kids and how they dress on the day of a board meeting even though the kid is maybe 35 or 40 years old. It’s stuff like that, so that’s totally inappropriate but people slip into the family roles.

Sometimes I’ve seen people at home sleeping too much into the business role where the tone needs to change sometimes. I have a lot of families to tell me we started talking about the business so much, that we stopped talking about other things that matter too. So that’s the danger as well so put emotion so far out that all you can talk about is work. So that’s what I meant when I said don’t be delusional, be realistic, know there’s going to be emotion and then confront them for what they are. Don’t dissimilate them but at the same time, don’t let them take over either buy a pressing them or by giving them too much sway.

James: I think that’s been in overcorrection in the academic world where we’re in such a hurry to shake the image that family businesses have been of being “unprofessional” that you have to throw everything out the window. It’s unrealistic. So that’s the five things you should know before joining your family business so if you know anybody who’s about to join the family business and you want to warn them or you want to prepare them, pass for this podcast of them and have them take a listen because I think it would be really helpful.