Episodes of tension between family members are normal and quite common in a family business. However, when stress reaches a certain level, it may be a sign that it’s time to move on. The decision to leave is loaded with emotional baggage, but creating a dialogue that is free of guilt can help ease this decision and its terms.
Moving away from the family business does not necessarily imply a blunt end; in some cases, a temporary step back might be all the family needs. A planned break can help bring a sense of clarity and even open up the possibility of negotiations for a more agreeable role in the business.
In this episode of our WiFB Conversations, Amy Katz and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss the decision to leave the family business and how to create honest and constructive dialogue surrounding this choice.
This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Amy Katz, founder of coaching-business Daughters in Charge.
R: Today, we’re tackling the question of whether or not you should stay in the family business.
People of a certain age always ask me if they should join their family business. The question that doesn’t get asked as frequently is whether or not you should leave the family business.
Amy, how often do you meet clients who clearly should not be in the family business? How do you go about making them aware of that situation?
A: The signs that one should leave come from the person through intense stress and frustration. Women who are comfortable pushing back will start to feel tired. It affects them and their family, and that fatigue mixed with a feeling of responsibility continues for a long time.
I typically don’t ask if they’ve thought about leaving the family business because that question is already on their lips. The signs and stress are there.
One person said to me recently, ‘There are so many stress management tools that I could try, but I don’t think this is the place for me.’
I hear this question in two different situations. The first is from clients who have been in the business for a long time, trying to push for change, career growth or happier relationships among siblings. The other side is someone who has suddenly taken over a family business; they worry that they won’t succeed like their father or grandfather.
Leaving a family business is quite different than leaving a big corporation.
R: It comes with emotional implications. The guilt of just thinking of leaving can be oppressive and feels disloyal.
When a family centres around an enterprise, we fail to allow a sense of belonging that goes beyond the business. This creates the fear that, if you leave, you’re not only giving up your job, but you’re also giving up your family. When it’s also linked with financial expectations, it can be burdensome and stressful. It’s interesting how few of us are able to create an honest dialogue around that within our families.
As you said, circumstances change. Even if I’m enthusiastic about being part of my family business today, that might not be how I feel for the rest of my life. It seems to be one of the most difficult things to do to create a safe environment in which that could be potentially discussed. It feels like you’re betraying your family.
Amy, do you have any tips for mitigating those feelings? How can you manage that situation while maintaining control of the outcome that you desire when you want to leave?
A: When a woman has become successful in a family business, she feels a responsibility to the employees. She can tell that they appreciate her leadership, and to leave would mean abandonment.
In family conflicts, I think neither party is fully aware of what they are contributing to the situation. For parents, no matter how often they see their child stressed or unhappy, they’re unable to see what’s causing that. They’re frustrated because their legacy depends upon what their child decides to do, and it disrupts them at a later stage of their career.
I like the motto, ‘Go slow to go fast.’ We all have doubts at various points in our careers; I think that comes with the workplace territory. However, when you’re unhappy, start to plant seeds. Ask yourself, ‘What is the next step in my career path?’
Gently go into this conversation over time, and be inquisitive about the family members in charge. What are they thinking about for the future of the business? What has it been like to manage a business that has grown so much?
There may need to be shifts or changes. Sometimes, family business owners are not always mindful that the world has changed around them. A good way to frame it is as a re-acquaintance to the new face of the business.
When a woman wonders if she should leave, she’s probably not the first family member to struggle with that. I think the opportunity to talk about this can also come as new family members enter and new partnerships are formed.
That’s one way to broach the topic, but the answer isn’t always with the family members. The desire to leave can occur for a variety of reasons.
R: That’s your ideal situation of clarity, but making the decision to leave can be the greatest struggle.
I think that’s when it becomes detrimental to the family business. Having people in that personal limbo who are tired, stressed or negative because they’re not fulfilled in their career can be very bad for the business.
I think that it’s also our appropriate responsibility to recognize those signs in other family members. If you see your siblings, cousins, parents or children unhappy in what they’re doing, things will become much easier for them to come to a conclusive decision if they were allowed to think that leaving is an option.
I’m not encouraging the idea of just leaving whenever things get dicey. We all know that being part of a family business is a demanding thing. It goes into your private life, and the boundaries are very difficult to manage.
I like what you said with the reframing idea. Think of this as building the future of the company. This will require different roles from everyone, and it will require you to transition and take on a different kind of responsibility. Instead of being fully in the business, you might just have your big toe in there.
Getting there is the real challenge, and understanding how to start that conversation is more difficult than it might seem.
I do think that, as women, we have a few opportunities. We always talk about how challenging it is to put your career on hold when you have kids. However, as women, we have clearly defined intervals in our lives that are significantly changing the way that we interact with our families.
Could we use those moments to our advantage instead of always seeing them as a negative? From getting married to having kids to going through menopause, could we use these moments as an excuse to move on to the next stage? Do you feel like we’re putting feminism back when we do these things? Or do you think it’s a justified move?
A: Women aren’t the only gender contemplating what they want their life to look like. Not every next-generation male wants to lead the life his father has led. Today, there seems to be more openness to choose, and we’re not being driven quite so much by the mighty dollar all the time.
To your point, going through biological changes prompts reflection and questioning of our attachments, our sense of who we are and our roles in society. Sometimes we need reflection, a renewal of commitment or simply a break to allow us the time to rethink our commitments.
R: Very often, we’re too much into the black and white trade-off decisions. You’re either in, or you’re out. However, when you’re part of a family business, that is never entirely true.
Of course, you’re in or out in terms of having an operational role, but you will always have an interest in the business doing well. You will not want to damage the prospects of the business, even if you don’t have an active role in it.
Have you seen women who have taken a break and have been able to successfully come back?
A: I’ve certainly seen cases where a woman has a baby, and that prompts reflection and new choices. There’s a range of responses when they come back, but sometimes they want to work even harder because they’re a mother now. The mama bear instinct comes out, and they are empowered to fight even harder for what they want.
However, many women look back and realize that the fighting is not good for them, their baby or their husband. There’s that sense that the world is suddenly very different.
I think, when coming back to work, you have to be willing to ask for a different role or a different schedule. When I coach in the non-family settings, many male leaders are relieved that a talented woman has come back because there was a fear and anxiety that she wouldn’t return.
During a break, take advantage of that time and space to rethink your role or resolve the recurring conflicts you experience at work.
In a family business, there’s little protection from one’s own emotions, and that can be a liability. Emotions happen, and they’re hard to control. However, in non-family settings, if your emotions get the better of you, you’re out the door.
When you take a break, use that time to reflect. What has been bringing you satisfaction? What are you tired of fighting about?
That thoughtful, questioning approach is a smoother way to engage family members around your choices. It helps to understand and consider other options if the woman decides she wants to leave, and it helps family members think through the impact of her change.
R: Is it unfair to make a family member stay when they want to leave? The instinct of anyone within the family unit would be to stick together.
How can families also be supportive in their reaction? When someone leaves, I think it feels like a definite loss for the other family members, and it feels like they’ve done something wrong.
Do you have instances where families have reacted extremely well or extremely poorly to a woman’s decision to leave the family business?
A: I think it’s fine for family members to say that they want to retain the person, but if someone’s unhappy it can be a great relief to everyone that they make a choice not to remain. However, you can rephrase it as, ‘Under what conditions would you be willing to stay?’
If a woman is ambivalent about leaving, the more she can articulate what’s getting in the way, the better off she will be. Before she voices her concerns, she should have it in her head of what changes she would need to stay.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to negotiate with a family member that wants to leave. I think that’s an open door to conversation. In some settings, this conversation is about women creating a career path. They have a certain role, but there are new skills that they’d like to develop.
It’s hard when you want to recommend a disruptive shift, such as when another employee’s failure is affecting your success. This involves naming something that may be out of your realm of responsibility. It may be a long-term situation that you desperately want to change, and it’s a tougher negotiation.
Any conversation where the intentions are clear opens up the negotiations. If her decision is non-negotiable, then she has already made the decision to leave, and she won’t negotiate. If, however, she’s considering staying but is tired of the stress, there is some room to negotiate.
It depends on how definitive she sees the break. Being clear about if you’re coming back with a question or if you’re coming back with a statement is important.
R: Before anyone makes the decision to leave, we encourage you to have that conversation once in a while with family members in your organisation.
Make sure to ask the question before it arises in conflict or when someone is on the verge of leaving. I think that’s preferable than making a desperate offer to someone with one foot out of the door.
About Amy Katz and Daughters in Charge:
Amy Katz is an executive coach and social psychologist whose business, Daughters in Charge, focuses exclusively on supporting women in family businesses. She is the author of Daughters in Charge: Learning to Lead in Your Family’s Business.