Most business owners can agree that managing business relationships is key to the success of their company, though sometimes when you’re in the weeds of a project or a deadline is looming, one may forget this core tenet. However, in my case, the relationship side of my business is something I rarely forget - because I work with my sister in a family business.
“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family... in another city.” –George Burns, Comedian
I am often asked what it’s like to work in a family business - how do you keep your work life and personal life separated? How do you prevent family dynamics from overshadowing business dynamics? How can you and your sister spend so much time together?? The potential for conflict to disrupt an otherwise good relationship, prevents many from considering making the step.
In today’s start-up environment, it’s very common for friends, classmates or peers to venture out together to start a business. Many of the situations and questions outlined above will seem familiar to those groups as well.
My sister and I founded Jenny & Andy together in 2017. Our joint vision is to provide Canadian-made, development-friendly kids toys with a preference for natural materials that allow caregivers and children across all denominations to play and learn with confidence.
Along the way we have had to navigate the many peaks and valleys that accompany entrepreneurship, all the while knowing that we will still come together on Sunday evening for dinner with our parents, spouses and children all seated at one table.
We both worked alongside our father prior to starting our business. He’s owned and operated a domestic apparel manufacturing business for over 35 years. Our guided experience allowed us to create a blueprint on how we might survive and even excel at working together. In our father’s view, it all comes down to how you manage relationships. From our internal relationship to those with suppliers, employees and customers.
With this baseline, we established 5 guidelines on how manage relationships in a business:
1. Managing family relationships: communication is key
When problems arise and tempers flare, communication is usually to blame. Sometimes, it’s a result of over-communication: familiarity can break down healthy boundaries, causing disagreements and tension. Other times, it’s a result of under-communication: we care about each other too much or just find it difficult to say what needs to be said.
The key to overcoming these communication woes is to talk more intentionally about the right things. Intentional discussions serve to define relationships, clarify boundaries, and establish expectations for one’s work dynamic. While this may be particularly prevalent for family members working together in a business, I have seen this applied to more traditional business structures with much success as well.
2. Managing supplier relationships: put it writing
As an owner operated businesses, sometimes suppliers can become a little too comfortable and informal. This can mean that they rely on verbal agreements only, or routinely try to undermine your staff in lieu of going straight-to-the-boss who is seen as an accessible figure.
Everyone is best served when everything is written down: from billable rates to delivery dates to expected responsibilities. For instance, if an informal side conversation happens with a contact or supplier, be sure to write an email copying all parties who should be involved and assign follow up responsibilities to the right contact. Keeping everyone informed with routine documentation of items discussed in conversation, is a best practice that helps to avoid ego-related tensions and maintain smooth operations.
3. Managing employee relationships: clearly define roles
Set clear roles amongst those on the management team so your team knows who to go to with different ideas, problems and for advice. Defining the roles from the start also prevents you from stepping on each other's toes when it's not necessary, and it keeps everyone focused on what they need to get done in order to make the business a success.
4. Managing customer relationships: be transparent
Ask for feedback often and be transparent with what you are capable of. Do not set yourself up to over-promise what you can offer a customer, then ultimately under-deliver, this outcome is far worse than being honest with what you can and cannot do instead. If there is an issue or problem, try to deal with it immediately and let the customer know what you have done. Don't let issues fester, address them early and often.
5. And finally, our golden rule: the role of a leader is to listen without judgement – every grievance demands an active ear, but not necessarily an active solution
This is our golden rule when managing all our business relationships. As a leader, it is my job to keep calm and make everyone feel heard. Many times, no active solution is required in the aftermath, the main requirement is to be available as a sounding board. Whether it’s praise on an outstanding achievement or having a difficult conversation about under-performing, as the face of the business, it is my responsibility to give and receive messages with open ears and an open mind.
While George Burns may disagree with the proximity I’ve chosen for me and my family, by following these guidelines, we have been able to support each other as we grow our respective business acumen and set ambitious goals for the successful business we hope to build!
This article was originally written for the 11th issue of Dreamer 2 Creator Business Magazine, a how-to educational magazine, created by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs and is available in print and digital. Check them out!