Q: I’ve been invited to join the leadership team of a second-generation family-owned business. They have made it through the transition from the founder, but don’t have a great track record with bringing in nonfamily leaders. What can we do to make this work?

Jan, 40, chief financial officer

A: It takes a different level of communication to navigate this type of situation.

Before you accept this offer, think through your expectations for your role. In a dysfunctional transition, there are a number of dynamics that can be at play.

For example, the nonfamily leaders can end up being second tier in terms of authority. Assuming that this would not be acceptable, what would be the red flags? They could relate to being excluded from discussions, left off communications, or having your decisions second guessed.

You could get caught in the middle. It’s hard to be an effective leader if your colleagues are working through family dynamics that have nothing to do with work.

Or, you could just end up being the perpetual outsider.

Were any of these factors responsible for past failures for nonfamily leaders at this firm?

Challenges like these can all be addressed, given goodwill on all sides. And, you will have to assume they want this to work; otherwise, why would they want you on the team?

Make a list of the key areas that would be a problem for you if they were to occur, and have conversations about them before accepting the position. Consider having a third party facilitate the discussion. Some of the content could feel sensitive to your prospective employer, and you want to prevent problems.

Identify concrete practices to follow for official meetings and decisions. As a member of the executive staff, there are some conversations that should always include you. This is something your colleagues will need to sign on to, and then honor both the letter and spirit of the agreement.

Establish some agreed-upon standards to rein in both positive and negative family interactions. It’s impolite to continually bring out inside jokes, and squabbling is even worse! This may be a good place to use some humor, agreeing in advance that it’s OK to “catch” people at this.

Maintain an engagement with a coach or business consultant who specializes in this type of transition. Having regular executive team check-ins will help you stay on track and prevent issues from escalating.

At the same time, give them some slack. There will be conversations at Sunday dinner, but if decisions are made or alternative courses of action decided on or rejected, be bold about asking to reopen the discussion.

And people who know and care about each other will have a different level of rapport. It’s also up to you to actively engage in building relationships so that you become increasingly comfortable with the team.

In short, don’t let problems grow. Anticipate issues, address them while they are minor, and be steadfast in your expectations. This will benefit both you and the family that has hired you.


What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at liz@deliverchange.com.