As a nationally recognized expert and consultant on family business issues, Tom Hubler of Hubler for Business Families works to help family-owned businesses succeed.
The mantra that guides Hubler when working with clients: “It’s always easier to prevent a problem than to try to fix one.”
We turned to Tom—who has made multiple appearances on NBC TV’s Today Show, been quoted in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Businessweek, and many other publications—to learn 5 of the steps that highly successful family-owned businesses take in order to succeed.
1. They minimize potential conflict with a board
No matter what kind of outside opinions you bring in, the goal of a board is to provide counsel that can lead to more objective decision-making. They also bring a wealth of experience and valuable perspective to your firm, says Hubler. “The question is: how are you going to replace the entrepreneur?” says Hubler, adding that many times, the founder of a family business is difficult to replace, for a number of reasons. An outside board can help with that process.
“In many ways, the [founder is] irreplaceable, and so you can’t find another person to take their place, but you can come up with a system [to help with eventual transition], and the system is a board of directors with either outside advisors or outside members,” says Hubler.
What happens is the younger-generation adult child is no longer reporting to their parent, which can immediately reduce potential conflict. “The younger generation is then reporting to a board of directors, and so that resolves and/or minimizes some of the conflict that goes on in some cases between the senior generation and the younger generation.”
2. They embrace structure with regular family meetings
There are three types of meetings you need to have in a family-owned business, says Hubler. “First, you need to have shareholder meetings and owner meetings, and only people who are the shareholders and owners and board members get to go to those meetings.”
You also need to have employee meetings for people who work at the firm, and only people who are employees are the ones who attend the meeting. The third type of meeting is a family meeting. The purpose of this meeting should be to help manage the boundary between the business and family relationship(s). “Everybody can be invited to those meetings, including spouses and other siblings who may not be active in the business,” recommends Hubler.
Part of what can happen in family-operated funeral homes is that there are two systems—the family system and the business system, and the overlap that can exist between those two systems can cause conflict.
“It’s an organizational problem that people within family businesses experience as an interpersonal issue, and often times the way they deal with it is to blame others.” But balance can be found between these two systems by adding structure and formality; in particular, by making sure to maintain these 3 types of meetings on a consistent basis.
Many families Hubler works with first resist, thinking they don’t need structure or formality since they are family. “I say to them, it’s because you love each other that you need structure and formality, and that’s how you create balance,” says Hubler.
3. They create a family participation plan
Hubler says one of the keys for success for family-owned firms is to establish a family participation plan as soon as possible. “A family participation plan is a set of ground rules about how you’re going to be, and operate, your family business.”
Think of the plan as a set of ground rules that can benefit all of those involved. “If you go to a ballgame, before the game starts, the umpires and the managers get together at home plate to go over the ground rules. The reason they do that is so they know what’s going to be fair and what’s going to be foul in terms of the ballgame,” says Hubler.
“Family-owned businesses start playing the ballgame, if you will, and they start playing the game of family business without a set of ground rules, in some cases.” Instead of figuring out the rules in the middle of the game, it’s best to start with a set of ground rules to cut down and minimize opportunity for conflict.
A family participation plan can include, among other factors:
- The criteria for coming into the business (entry into the business)
- What kind of education will be required (or encouraged)
- Expectations on whether you have outside work experience before joining the family business
- Other eligibilities for joining the business
- The training program expectations
- What happens if mistakes or failures occur
- Compensation plan
- Issues related to career planning
4. They work on their communication and conflict management skills
Strengthening family communication takes work, but it’s worth it. Hubler recommends using a program similar to Collaborative Team Skills, a book and approach developed by Sherod Miller designed to help families successfully manage their differences.
Whatever program is used, ongoing training to help people learn how to successfully manage their differences and express and manage their feelings, wants, and actions can greatly help the funeral home in the long-run.
5. They create—and adapt—their family vision
Having a family vision, supported by a family code of conduct, is important for family-owned funeral homes. Successful firms are able to use the family’s values to create a common vision that can unite them and help them to see and articulate their reciprocal commitment to each other, and each other’s success.
Family members should be able to know that every day, they are putting energy or goodwill or positive energy into the business and family. “That’s what creates a team—is people committed to helping each other be successful.”
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