By encouraging family business members to establish boundaries, Katerina Andreou helps them balance their many roles to build in strength.

Before Andreou founded HR Innovate, she worked in the UK as a mental health practitioner specialising in children and families for over 10 years. Her two careers are linked by a common thread: a fascination with interpersonal dynamics and resilience – topics she has devoted her professional life to.

As a psychologist, she knows that many “business issues” are “people issues”, and while some problems are best approached structurally, other issues require a more iterative approach – one that emphasises emotional intelligence.

Communication plays a critical role because problem-solving is often a collaborative process. By helping families establish healthy boundaries through open lines of communication, Andreou is simultaneously helping family firms build resiliency.

We sat down with Katerina Andreou to discuss objectivity, emotionality and whether technology is changing the balance in family businesses.

Success is a Progression: Healthy Boundaries, Healthy Business
Image courtesy of Katerina Andreou.

“Boundaries are foundational; managing them is an essential part of leadership. As leaders, the work culture we create impacts every person who comes into contact with it.”

Why are boundaries such a complex issue in the family business? 

Boundaries, another word for the lines we draw to define our relationships, become increasingly necessary the more time we spend together, regardless of the context. We already spend about a third of our life at work. When a wife, husband or father – a person from the other side of life – doubles as a boss, another layer of complexity is added in the overlap.

The boundaries issue, despite its delicate nature, cannot be avoided. Boundaries are foundational; managing them is an essential part of leadership. As leaders, the work culture we create impacts every person who comes into contact with it. Like a family unit, everything must connect in the right way for the organisation to run well.

A certain duality exists when it comes to the potential of family relationships: when connections are managed well, and relationships are intentional instead of reactive, family closeness is a tremendous benefit.

When the opposite is true, however, that same familiarity can be catastrophic. I’ve seen founders divorce, leaving their businesses divided and emotionally traumatised because of their separation.

“It takes real dedication to keep separation, but ideally…roles do not mix.”

What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries?

Healthy boundaries are established through clear communication. They are agreed upon and accepted. It starts with the division of labour, which means clearly defined job titles and descriptions. It’s important to keep specific relationships or connections in perspective. Blood relationships, for example, should cease during work hours. Conversely, out of the office, work relationship must also cease.

Defining boundaries might mean the conscious choice of being a CEO from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, but giving up that role entirely to be a father or mother on the weekend. It takes real dedication to keep separation, but ideally, these roles do not mix.

What can family members do if they feel their boundaries are being encroached upon?

Keep emotionality out of it. Problems are inevitably more charged when family is involved.

Then, address the problem and whoever else is involved in writing: communicating on paper aids clarity and enables deliberate action. Take your time and wait a few days after writing the letter or email before sending it. Business concerns deserve rational consideration, and effective communication outlines practical concerns from a business standpoint.

“Success in business requires objectivity, and anything that threatens that objectivity is potentially problematic. Boundary maintenance keeps family businesses centred and focused.”

Where should a family member start when considering boundaries?

Sit down as a family and start the conversation. Talk openly and transparently. Reassess your goals for the business and where you want to take it. Then, make sure everyone is working in the same direction and respecting the boundaries that have been discussed.

If family issues are spilling over into the business, there are some difficult decisions to make. Success in business requires objectivity, and anything that threatens that objectivity is potentially problematic. Boundary maintenance keeps family businesses centred and focused.

From a leadership perspective, what works to aid this maintenance?

Considering what doesn’t work is perhaps more illuminating. In our culture, the alpha male business owner with family members under him is typical. These family businesses are hierarchical, and the final decision always rests with the patriarch.

This kind of traditional, almost tribal leadership can spell disaster when family members feel their boundaries have been impinged upon. The power structure is so grossly imbalanced that it exacerbates frustrations. Demarcating roles can’t help the dynamic when weight is distributed so poorly.

This model can foster a bullying culture where everybody under the patriarch, be they family or non-family, is unhappy. Exclusive patriarchies aren’t fit for today’s business culture.

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Where does external consultation or expertise come in?

Ideally, family members have non-family HR consultants or advisors they can turn to for help when problems arise. Working towards a solution-focused resolution should be a collaborative exercise.

Consultants should start their work by reassessing the structure of a company to identify and ameliorate boundary issues. This may involve employing outsiders to join family members in existing departments or, in some cases, implementing new structures altogether.

Family businesses benefit from the fresh outlook that comes with new hires – people who understand the history of the business, appreciate the commitment and passion involved but are more open to embracing today’s business culture and practices.

There is so much to be gained, especially in light of transformative technologies like AI and automation. Sometimes, it takes a fresh set of eyes to see the potential.

“Success is something we build together through healthy relationships.”

How can more traditional families embrace 21stcentury technology in an honest way?

Balance is critical. In my sphere of HR, these tools have helped us become more agile and technically proficient. Eschewing proven strategies to bet wholly on the future is unwise; success is a progression. For example, analytics allows us to approach issues from a data-driven perspective, but emotional intelligence is a critical factor when dealing with family business issues. Ignoring the psychological perspective would be a mistake.

Technology can help us establish and maintain boundaries. With data, which adds another layer of objectivity, we can strategise logically, protecting ourselves against the potential destructiveness of emotional-based decision-making.

With well-analysed data, arguing over what works and what doesn’t is no longer a consideration – the answers are obvious. That said, the technology only provides clarity; it doesn’t necessarily come up with the solution. Success is something we build together through healthy relationships.