Helping family and business work well together - by Paul Keogh

I have always been very interested in observing people and their behaviour, even down to studying their body language. It is what got me interested in marketing in my early career. I wanted to understand how and why people were motivated to buy different brands. Over the years, as I studied behavioural science, I came across a lot of studies on groups and group behaviour. Families are the most common form of group we have. I had heard that no two families are alike, but I wanted to understand why this was. I read all the work by eminent experts, people like Murray Bowen and Walter Toman, who studied group dynamics.

I was of course in business as a senior executive and fortunate to work in some really successful family businesses. I was fascinated by how these different families operated and how they ran a family business. It gave me great insight, being ‘inside the tent’. As the head of marketing, I realised that the ‘brand’ in a family business closely takes on the personality and culture of the family, especially if the family name was over the door. I immersed myself in understanding the family, their values, their beliefs and their vision for the family business. I came to realise that without an understanding of the family and family dynamics, it was difficult to be impactful working in a family business, especially in marketing.

As my career progressed and I worked for more and more family businesses, progressing into general management, I was amazed at how my fellow non-family executives rarely stopped to think of the family’s influence in areas such as governance, risk, opportunities, investment and so on. My colleagues seemed to want to ignore the unique working environment that is a family business.

I started to read endless books on family businesses, written in the main by eminent academics. I became frustrated because many of them covered aspects of how to run a business that happened to be a family business. They avoided any meaningful discussion on this very common saying ‘Every family is different’, and how this impacts a business. I switched to reading family psychology. Hardly anyone had given weight to the discussion on how the world of family is supposed to interact with the world of business and then how these two very different worlds are often in conflict.

I was always of the belief that a dysfunctional family would have to work hard not to run a dysfunctional business.

I quickly realised that there are a lot of dysfunctional families in the world, some only slightly dysfunctional and some chronically dysfunctional. Many of these were running family businesses.

I never intended to write a book on family businesses. Over the course of many years, I would write down notes and observations. As I got asked more and more to sit with families and help them work better together as a unit, I came to realise that they had no reference book to go to, no guide to help them explore some of the issues facing families, especially families in business together. Most family businesses throughout the world employ less than twenty people. This is not to say that they are not important, but they are busy people who do not always get the time to hire ‘consultants’, so I thought if I could write a book that would give them a starting point, this would hopefully encourage or prompt conversations in the family about topics that they might otherwise find awkward to raise or discuss openly and honestly.

Like a lot of practitioners, I was fortunate to be able to use my family business client base as my sounding board for what they would find beneficial in a book. It may seem a disaster to tell you that few of my target market ever read books at all and rarely if ever go into book shops. My ‘book’ began as a series of ‘topics’ that I knew were top of mind for family businesses and I wanted to give practical advice and some tips on how to tackle these issues. Many family businesses are really good at the business side but are less comfortable with the family side of the business. Family matters tend to be put on the long finger. Often sensitive family issues are raised, an awkward conversation follows and the topic is dropped.

Covid-19 changed all our lives. We spent more time either at home or away from home. Some families saw much more of each other than usual and when you are also running a business together, this can lead to stress and anxiety. I am guilty of procrastinating, so I finally set a deadline for the book to be finished. I couldn’t have done it without the professional support I got from my publishers, Sue Richardson and her team, in terms of deadlines, editorial and always asking the question, ‘Why would anyone read this book?’

I am hoping that family members in a family business, non-family members in the business and the business advisors will read this quick guide and it will inspire them or inform them. I hope they will be motivated to understand the family side of the business more fully and how it impacts the business rather than spend so much time understanding the ‘business’ side in isolation. All families are different, and it is this difference, if properly harnessed, that makes many family businesses so successful.

You can buy The Family Business Book in print and eBook from all good book retailers and online at Discover more about Paul's work with family businesses on his website.

If you'd like to discuss becoming a published author with a book for your business, why not request a free consultation with us at the Right Book Company.

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