Are you struggling with the complications of working in a family business? In this episode of HBR's advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Ted Clark, who runs the Center for Family Business ...
Are you struggling with the complications of working in a family business? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Ted Clark, who runs the Center for Family Business at Northeastern University. They talk through advancing when you’re not a member of the family, managing up when your parents are your bosses, and whether it’s better to work for a family enterprise or a big corporation.
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Listen to more episodes and find out how to subscribe on the Dear HBR: page. Send in your questions about workplace dilemmas by emailing Dan and Alison at email@example.com.
From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:
HBR: Surviving in a Family Business When You’re Not Part of the Family by Josh Baron and Rob Lachenauer — “Successful non-family leaders stick to the ‘management room.’ They understand that when it comes to the ‘family room,’ the family has all the power; it’s never going to be a fair fight. Blood is usually thicker than water. Yet family squabbles do spill over into the management room, and non-family executives must be able to isolate the business from the family when family members can’t see past their own internal squabbling.”
HBR: Avoid the Traps That Can Destroy Family Businesses by George Stalk, Jr. and Henry Foley — “An underappreciated problem is that families often grow more quickly than their businesses do. If a company founder has three children, each of whom marries and produces three more children, each of whom marries, within three generations there could be 25 people or more (including all the spouses) working or looking to work at the company. Many businesses simply don’t have enough work to employ every family member.”
HBR: Saving a Family Business from Emotional Dysfunction by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries — “The most persistent complaints I hear are that members of the senior generation refuse to share power with their adult children; that there are family members put into management positions for which they are not qualified; and that it is impossible to have a truly professional relationship with someone in the family (father, mother, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, or cousin). And all too often, the powerholders in a family business fail to address such problems effectively.”
HBR: Leadership Lessons from Great Family Businesses by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, Sonny Iqbal, and Jörg Ritter — “Leadership decisions, particularly at the very top, can be a minefield for family businesses. But our research shows that companies can navigate safely and prosper for generations if they establish good governance as a baseline, preserve family gravity, identify and develop high-potential executives both within the family and outside it, and bring the right discipline to their CEO succession and integration processes.”
DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. The truth is that we don’t have to let the tension, conflicts and misunderstandings get us down. We can do something about them.
DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions about workplace dilemmas and with the help of experts and insights from academic research, we help you move forward.
ALISON BEARD: Today we’re answering your questions about family businesses with Ted Clark. He runs the Center for Family Business at Northeastern University. Ted, thanks so much for being on the show.
TED CLARK: Thank you for having me here. I appreciate the opportunity.
ALISON BEARD: So, what do people not understand about family businesses?
TED CLARK: I think a lot of people think family businesses are small, that they don’t perform well, that they’re undercapitalized. I think what you find with family businesses is when they work well they’re unstoppable. They’re altruistic. They’re very focused. They’re great places to work and they’re just tremendous businesses and there’s so many examples of success around there and they can have a very long history. If you look at the oldest businesses in the world, they’re family businesses.
DAN MCGINN: One of the nice things is they’re naturally incentivized to think longer term and think about generations instead of the next quarter.
TED CLARK: When you’re making plans for the next generation, you’re thinking long-term and you’re willing to reduce profits in the short term and maybe even over a period of years, to plan for the business. It’s really hard to compete against them.
ALISON BEARD: But they also have a reputation for having problems too, right?
TED CLARK: So, one of the jokes I always have is when a family business works well, you can’t beat it. And when it doesn’t work well, it’s great fun to watch. [LAUGHTER]
DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: I’m on the brink of calling it quits. I’m one of three children who’ve worked in my family’s company. My parents literally started the business on our kitchen table, moved to the garage and continued to grow from there. It’s a competitive industry, but they’ve been able to provide a decent living for our family. When the economy crashed 10 years ago, our industry was hit hard. I earned my MBA and went back to help the family business out of an extremely tough situation. I rebuilt processes, developed stronger supplier relations and managed tax audits. I put in some checks and balances that seemed too eroded over the years as my parents got comfortable. When I was fixing other problems in the company my mother and father were fine with me. But now when the focus has shifted to them and their client selection, they don’t want to hear a word that I’m saying. They either ignore me or it ends in a fight and these words. You have book smarts, but I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years and deserve some respect. I haven’t tried to push them in any crazy new direction. I’ve been trying to show them that some of our clients may not be worth their time. I understand their connection to their customers, well, some of them and those that they have a deep connection with. I don’t mind them working with them, but there’re others that are just not worth it. My parents should be using their time to go after higher potential clients. I have set up great opportunities in industries that we’ve had our fingers in before, but less profitable clients have taken priority. The glaring flaw right now is sales and prospecting, but I’m not getting any support from the two people who matter most in that area. I’m at my wits end. A little help navigating the treacherous waters of family business would be appreciated.
TED CLARK: You know, I can really sense his frustration and I can understand why he’s frustrated. He’s come in and he’s done some really great things for the company. However, it’s not his company. It sounds like a sense of entitlement. He’s come in and done great things, but he wants to do more.
ALISON BEARD: Wow. It’s interesting that you’re on the parent’s side because I was absolutely on our letter writer’s side. I thought he is trying to do great things for the company. He does have an MBA. His point of view seems totally fair that if customers are unprofitable then they should transition away from them to higher growth. Why do you come down on the side of the parents?
TED CLARK: They started this at the kitchen table. They’ve been doing this for 34 years. It’s their business. He’s made the decision on the customers that he wants to prioritize. I think that was the way he phrased it. He needs to connect with his parents and find out what they want to do with the business. It’s truly their business and he needs to understand that they might have a different objective in life even at their, at a different age than he is and understand where they want to go before he starts making long-term, strategic changes in the business without a discussion with them.
DAN MCGINN: It seems like he assumes that they want the business to last forever and that he’s going to inherit it and he’s starting to behave as the decider right now.
TED CLARK: So, assumptions and expectations are two key issues that need to be discussed in the family business. And it sounds like he has made an assumption, an assumption that he will take over and it will be his business, and with that comes a sense of I think, entitlement. That he feels entitled to making these changes and to moving the business forward in the direction that he wants to go, but ownership matters and they are the owners of the business. And if an employee came up to the owners of the business and said, this is what we’re doing, and this is where we’re going, the answer would be no, but thanks for asking.
ALISON BEARD: But can you really treat your son who has helped you rescue the business as just a flat out employee?
TED CLARK: Well you have to really ask did he rescue the business or just help them through a tough time. As he mentioned, I think at one point that they had 34 years of good times and bad times. They were probably going to make it through the other end of the blender with the recession if he was there or not. They’ve probably gone through a recession before. They sound like survivors, so they may not see the upside that he’s brought to them in the same light.
DAN MCGINN: Now, from a business perspective he’s probably right. That they’re servicing the wrong customers and that they need to make a change on this.
TED CLARK: But one thing I’d like to really raise a question of perhaps his parents are correct with the choice of customers. They’ve been in this business for quite a long time and quite often customers come in because they’re price shopping or they’re looking for an edge or they’re going to be temporary intransient customers. If they have a long-term relationship with these customers, they might be getting better margins from them because they know the industry better and they’re able to better serve them. They’ve been a long-term customer and you leave them that could create other issues with your other vendors or other customers. So, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that mom and dad are incorrect with their customers.
DAN MCGINN: One way to split the difference might be if you let the parents continue to serve these long-standing loyal customers and you let the son, the son wants to bet on bringing in new business, let the son hire a new salesperson for a year and say listen, I think we have great opportunities in these three industries. You have a year, see if you can build a book of business here. So, maybe keep the legacy customers with the parents. Over time maybe that’s going to sunset a little bit, but bring in somebody new to focus on these new opportunities.
TED CLARK: Dan, that’s a great idea. My reaction to that first off is quite often with new sales, are higher expenses. You may have capacity issues. You may have vendor issues. So, you’re really changing the strategic direction of the business with increased sales. And if the parents are comfortable and if they’re thinking about retiring, they may look at this as something that creates an added risk to the business and they may not want to do that. You know, he made the comment at one point in time in there that his parents were comfortable with things. It was OK when he was doing the back office things that they weren’t that interested in, but now they’re affecting their customers. They can see that they might be uncomfortable where this is going.
ALISON BEARD: So, it seems like you’re suggesting that this guy really doesn’t know what his parents want to do with the business. They might even want to sell it.
TED CLARK: Yeah, I’m suggesting that he doesn’t really understand what they want to do and that they might want to retire at some point and then the question for him is, can the business support their retirement, or do they have to sell to be able to retire? And if they have to sell the business, he has sort of a quandary. He has to figure out how he can either buy the business, or figure out if he can go with the business in the sale or an option he might have to go somewhere else. This is in part why a discussion with the parents and what they want to do because they’re comfortable now, they may not want to take the risk because they’re thinking, a few more years and we’ll sell.
DAN MCGINN: Do you find that children in this situation tend to operate with blinders that they just see the family business as the place they’re going to go and they’re not going to explore the outside opportunities?
TED CLARK: I’d actually have to say I’m a little disappointed that the first part of this letter, out of his mouth, is I’m thinking of calling it quits. He’s been at it for 10 years. It’s provided a great opportunity for him and the comment of treacherous waters, it’s provided warm friendly waters where he can, has had the opportunity to do great and wonderful things with his career, selling, back operations, back-office operations. He’s had great opportunities here. He shouldn’t be thinking about calling it quits. He should be thinking about approaching his parents and opening the discussions to see where this is going so that he knows what the options are for him in the business. If you really look at what’s going on here and the treacherous waters that he’s mentioned, he’s the one churning the waters up. From his parents’ perspectives, everything’s very comfortable. He’s creating the turmoil.
ALISON BEARD: I’m still on his side, but if you think that the first conversation that he needs to have with his parents is so, are you intending to sell this business? Do you even want me here? If you think that’s the conversation he should have with them, how does he open it? Because it seems like things are tense now. So, how does he open those lines of communication?
TED CLARK: Alison, you did it perfectly. Just like that. Just approach your parents. Say, can we talk? Can we just sit down and have a discussion? It’s come across that in some of his parts he’s basically told them what to do. He needs to turn it around as you framed it and ask them what they want. Find out what’s on their mind and where they want to go. It’s about them, not always about him.
DAN MCGINN: It strikes me that these discussions can be challenging even outside of a family context. None of us are allowed in the workplace to say, you know Alison, you’re getting kind of old. When do you think you’re going to hang it up? [LAUGHTER] It gets to age, it gets to mortality, it gets to decrepitude. It’s hard to have these conversations, don’t you think?
TED CLARK: It’s very hard to have these conversations. And he has to be very tactful in how he brings these things up. A lot of times you find that family business owners, they’ve run a business for 30 something years, this is their life. To walk away from the business after 30 something years, I mean, it might be the only thing they know. It’s really, really hard and it’s got to be approached in a way that they don’t feel threatened with what’s happening. But creating an opportunity for them to continue and to get the business to continue on long-term. That might be their goal. And then it won’t be I’m thinking about I’m calling it quits. It will be thinking, I’m thinking about making this my life’s career.
ALISON BEARD: As long as I don’t have to keep working with my parents.
TED CLARK: Yeah. Who would want to work with their parents? [LAUGHTER]
ALISON BEARD: So, Dan, what are we telling our letter writer?
DAN MCGINN: Well, I think first we need to recognize who actually owns the business and as far as we can tell right now, that’s the parents. So, they have decision rights on this. That’s not to say the son’s strategy to change the customer base isn’t the right strategy, but like in any business, if he wants to try to implement that strategy and he doesn’t hold the power, he’s going to need to use influence and use diplomacy and use a lot more clear and transparent communication. We think going forward, there needs to be a lot more clarity around what kind of future they want for the business in terms of its ownership, whether the son is going to be a long-term owner of the business and if so, when that would happen. And this gentleman needs to consider the fact that he might be acting a little bit entitled and he might be making some assumptions about the future that aren’t on the same page as his parents, and we think some clarity needs to be made there.
ALISON BEARD: Onto the next question. Dear HBR: I work for a private company of about 100 people. The owners create new rules for friends and family members all the time. Sometimes even hiring people without the normal interview process. My boss is friends with one of the partners which may be a large part of how he got his role. I doubt he has the experience to be leading the marketing team for this company. He has an MBA. He does sometimes ask good questions in meetings, but he also fails to pay attention to details and seems to always have his head in the clouds. For example, he likes to search the internet for schemes that will generate quick marketing wins, instead of creating a real marketing strategy. He also loves to set high and unachievable goals. He always deflects our questions back at us to get our opinions, while offering none of his own. I’m getting increasingly frustrated. I feel like I’m being set up for failure. Last year I nailed a major project. The owners and even our clients raved about how well it was done and it keeps bringing in new clients. In my review, my boss said he ranked me as the top performer on our team and recommended me for a raise. But then a couple weeks later there was an announcement that everyone would be getting a raise for inflation. My boss tried to play it off as the raise he talked about. I said there was no individual recognition, but he said there was nothing he could do. Then I found out that one of the other members on my team who’s directly connected to one of the company’s owners got double the raise everyone else did. My question is how can I be recognized for my contributions when I’m not family or a close friend of the company owners?
TED CLARK: I can understand why he’s upset. I really truly can and I can see why he’d be thinking what he’s thinking. It does not sound like fun. But on the other hand, I think he’s got a tremendous opportunity in front of him. He’s had the opportunity to do many different projects and as he said, he nailed one. Everybody realizes he did it. He may not be getting the appreciation that he wants, but he’s getting the appreciation and respect for delivering results. Sooner or later it will become apparent that he’s doing a great job. So, I see a huge opportunity here, although I do feel his frustration.
DAN MCGINN: So, it seems like this is in some ways a typical bad boss kind of question, but part of what makes this situation interesting is that the company seems to have a systemic bad boss problem because they’re just making jobs for their friends and family all over the place. Is that a common complaint that surrounds family businesses?
TED CLARK: I think that’s a common complaint that surrounds most every business. People hire people they like. A family business it’s called nepotism and in a corporation, it’s just called politics. They play a different game. It’s just the same game, but a different name.
ALISON BEARD: So, I’m again going to disagree with you Ted because I think that this guy is working really hard for him to get the same raise as everyone else and for someone else who’s a friend of the owner to get double the amount of that doesn’t seem fair. And I understand life isn’t fair and I understand that organizations aren’t fair, but I think he could move to an organization that might be more fair and have less politics involved and certainly less nepotism.
TED CLARK: So, I don’t think we’re disagreeing at all. I agree with you. He could do that. All I’m saying is that when he does that he’s just in a new situation, playing probably the same game or slightly different game. He seems to have a handle on what the game is here. So, I’m just saying he could use this to his advantage at this point. If he’s done a great job on a major project, he can lobby the owners and the managers for another great project and he could use that as a lever to work into good stead with the owners because they can clearly give the raises to the people that they want to give it to. And he could use that to his advantage, that’s all.
ALISON BEARD: So, you’re basically saying become a friend of the family.
TED CLARK: Yeah, basically I’m saying become a friend of the family. [LAUGHTER] Because they’re the ones that can give out the bonuses and they’re the ones that will appreciate the work. You always have to play to the people in power. It doesn’t matter a family business, you play to the family members, the owners. In a corporation, you play to the CEO.
DAN MCGINN: On this hiring question, you said at a corporation people tend to hire their friends. It’s not that much different. I do get the sense that there’s a perception that at family businesses it is more frequent that they hire people who are incompetent, who don’t have the same level of experience. It seems like politics and nepotism are a little bit different and it’s one of the reasons companies often have anti-nepotism policies. Is that an unfair perception about family businesses? That they’re just hiring the dilettante cousin who doesn’t really, isn’t really up to snuff and doesn’t really have the background for the job?
TED CLARK: Sometimes perspectives like that get bandied about because they’re true, but sometimes the most qualified people really are family members. If you think of an employee, they may have grown up in the business and the story isn’t always the same. They started out as a little kid taking out the trash. I did every odd job in the place. They really know the business. They know the industry. They know the people in the buildings and the employees. And they have a deep emotional commitment to it. These are the people you can trust. And if nothing else, more people hire for trust than competence. At the end of the day if you don’t trust somebody, you don’t want to work with them. And so, family businesses like to hire people they trust and that’s a driving factor. If you can trust people to do the right thing, they’re probably going to do their very best to do the right thing.
ALISON BEARD: I think people should hire for both trust and competence. And I do think there’s a concern in this business that they’re not doing that. And they’re certainly not rewarding people for competence. Should he ask about this raise? And his boss said there’s nothing he can do. Should he go to the company owners and say, I had a massive year and I’d really like to be rewarded for it in the way that others seem to be rewarded. Can he go and have that conversation? What do you guys think?
DAN MCGINN: That was one of the thoughts that crossed my mind. That a skip level meeting is absolutely, his boss said he would get a raise, then his boss said my hands are tied. Going to the boss’s boss to get more information if nothing else, absolutely makes sense.
TED CLARK: So, there’s always the risk by jumping up the corporate ladder. It could work out really well for him. It could be a disaster for him.
ALISON BEARD: Well, I think I would ask permission first or give my boss a heads up. You’ve said there’s nothing you can do. I feel like I really deserve this raise. I’d like to schedule a meeting with the owner.
TED CLARK: If he’s looking at leaving and if he’s really frustrated and he’s thinking about leaving, why not do that? That’s great advice. If he wants to stay there, might be a little bit better way to approach the boss, by asking for a new project or something great because he did a great job and just not asking for cash or something. But yeah, if he’s ready to leave then why not play that card?
DAN MCGINN: I wonder why there’s also sort of a broader perception or a misperception about family businesses that they have a harder time attracting the best people in the first place because of this cronyism and the idea that if you’re not a family member you’re only going to rise so high in the company. We can name companies where a CEO who’s not in the family has never made it that far and that there’s going to be this whittling out. The best people are going to leave because there’s not going to be these opportunities because they’re reserved for the family.
TED CLARK: Yeah, that is a problem. If you know that you don’t have the opportunity to advance in a company because your name is the right name, you might not go there. And that can be a real, a huge disadvantage to family businesses.
DAN MCGINN: Do you see that often that they have a problem recruiting for that?
TED CLARK: They have a problem recruiting for that reason, yeah. And like any business, if they don’t recruit people for the right reasons they’ll stagnate and they won’t grow. So, the really successful ones, the savvy ones realize that they need to if you will, fish from a larger gene pool and bring in a group of people that are just not family. And those are the ones that you go to and when you see those family businesses that bring in nonfamily executives, and there’s a lot of them, you see great opportunities.
DAN MCGINN: We had an article in HBR a few years ago by George Stalk that was the four traps that can sink a family business. And trap number one was always making room for cousin so and so, the idea that there’s always a place for you here if you’re in the family and we’ll just gin up a role for you.
TED CLARK: Can you imagine what it’s like to work with a guy that took the job because it’s the only place that would hire him? It’s not going to be fun for the other employees. And the family business that does that more often than not, breeds a very poor culture. They breed a lot of resentment among the employees. It’s not a fun place to work. Family members typically take advantage because they’re family and they know they’re not going to get fired. It’s not a great thing to do. And my opinion is that family members need to be treated like employees so employees can realize that they have an opportunity just as a family member does. Because if you, no matter how hard you work, there’s no room for opportunity for advancement, you’re not going to work as hard. It’s just not going to be good for you or the company. A very dysfunctional environment.
ALISON BEARD: And it sounds like our letter writer is operating in that kind of dysfunctional environment. So, is there anything he can do as not a friend of the owner, not a family member to move the company towards that culture change?
TED CLARK: I don’t know if he could move the company towards culture change. Culture starts at the top. There’s really no opportunity for somebody at a lower level to change the culture. That’s wishing on a string. It just doesn’t do anything.
DAN MCGINN: Is there any set of policies or any sort of systemic fix you could do short of getting rid of the friends and family? Is there anything you can do to try to create the perception that there’s a more level playing field and that there’s better opportunities for everybody?
TED CLARK: So, one of the things in family businesses is they’re often told that they should professionalize. And I’m not a big fan of the word professionalize because it implies that they’re not professionals. I like to use the word formalize. That they need to formalize their structure with rules and roles. Hiring is a key issue. That they should have hiring policies, promotion policies, pay policies and that they should stick with those and then they should have very clear roles in what people do. So, if there’s no structure at this business, then it would make, it would be a red flag to the writer that they’re not going to go down this path. He has to really understand the culture. And if that’s the culture, there’s probably not a good opportunity for him here.
DAN MCGINN: Maybe in his exit interview if he does quit he can say this is why.
TED CLARK: My comment to that would be it would fall on deaf ears. And sound like you’re bitter. You just say thank you for everything you’ve done and it’s been great. I loved you guys. Just another opportunity and I’m ready for a change. But maybe in the future, we can work together, it would be great. [LAUGHTER] But I’ll go to Alison’s point, if he’s going to leave, before he does he should play that card and say, hey I did great things for you guys. Am I going to get rewarded, or develop clarity on what his options are here, and then make a decision for the right reason with clarity, as opposed to just frustration.
DAN MCGINN: So, Alison what are we telling him?
ALISON BEARD: So, we absolutely understand why this man is frustrated, but we also want to encourage him to look more objectively at the situation. He is getting great opportunities. There is politics everywhere, not just at family-owned firms. And so, maybe he should consider playing the game including getting to know the owners a little bit better. At the same time, he has to have a better understanding of whether he’s going to be rewarded and promoted fairly going forward. So, he needs to have a conversation with his boss, perhaps his boss’s boss, or the company owner to just get a feel for what his true career path might be at this organization. And if he discovers that he will be limited because of a dysfunctional culture then he should consider leaving.
DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: I’m an older millennial working for a midsize family business. The work-life balance is great. I get along with coworkers and the boss. There are small perks like sports tickets, lunches, golf and other things. Overall, great. My friends admire my flexibility with my work schedule. I keep getting raises and a time off has allowed me to travel abroad for long stints. Travel’s a passion of mine. However, the company does have its quirks. There’s a lot of disorganization and lack of professionalism. To be honest, sometimes I feel like I’m the smartest guy in the room. So, my question is what if you feel like you’re a relatively big fish in a small pond? I’m still learning some skills like do it yourself or figure out how to do it, but I’m probably missing out on the learning and opportunities that come at a bigger, slicker outfit. I’ve got siblings who work for Fortune 100 companies. They make good money. I’m doing OK, moneywise, but I’m not buying any fancy cars or second homes. Am I missing out on the big company experience?
TED CLARK: From my perspective, this is a poster child of a good family business. They value their employees. They treat their employees well. He made the comment, the writer made the comment that it was disorganized. That’s a cultural decision. They’ve avoided the professionalism of structure, but they’re not dysfunctional. This is like a great organization. This is the kind of place you leave and you come back realizing, I had a great opportunity here. Everything was wonderful. I got to travel. I got perks. I got along with my employees. There was no fighting. What an awesome place. Why would you want to leave? Your friends admire it. What’s the big company experience that’s so much fun? I don’t know.
ALISON BEARD: Well, he talks about more money, but I think legitimately he could learn a lot more in a big organization. If he’s the smartest guy in the room, that’s a problem. Especially as someone who is young.
TED CLARK: Being the smartest guy in the room could very well be a problem, but if they ever have the opportunity to do diverse projects and a lot of different projects, they’re probably learning a lot going across a variety of tasks. Quite often in the bigger companies, you’re a cog in a wheel, functional in a spot and you might learn great depth in one area, but just one area. So, there could be quite a lot of learning going on here that the reader’s just not appreciating. And the big corporate experience you hear from so many is not as much fun. Yeah, the money might be better, but a lot of them here, if you think of some of the larger companies where they’re on credible performance reviews and they’re working for a very higher structural organization and everything’s very functional, it might not be as much fun.
ALISON BEARD: But should someone at his age be prioritizing fun and lifestyle over career advancement and development? Because I worry that if he stays at this small firm that will limit his career path going forward. And if in five years he decides, oh I actually would like to move to a more dynamic, diverse global company say, he won’t have the experience on his resume to justify them hiring him.
TED CLARK: Yep, Alison you make a great point. And that’s really a personal decision of what they want to do with their career. And if they want that career, then they should figure out where they want to go and make that decision. And this might not be the best place for them.
DAN MCGINN: Big companies you do have a lot more opportunities just because it’s a bigger place. There tends to be a lot more formal development. I also wondered whether he could take some of what he might find at a bigger company and try to ask for some of that at this small company. Maybe he needs to ask to go to some sort of executive Ed course or to get some of the kind of formal training you might get at a bigger company to kind of replicate some of that experience.
TED CLARK: That’s a great idea. And if you look at this company, they seem very accommodating with things and they may really appreciate him in a way that a different company wouldn’t appreciate him, in going and asking for education and training and other opportunities could be a great thing for him to do. I would strongly suggest he consider that.
ALISON BEARD: I still go back to, I worry that I’m the smartest guy in the room. No one should ever be working in an organization where they don’t look at their superiors and think, I can really learn from these people. But this idea that he could stay at this organization and get that learning and experience he needs elsewhere which Dan suggested, I think is a great one. If he can build up the experience that would prove to a bigger firm, should he decide to go there in the future, while working at this one, I think that’s a great solution. Good job, Dan.
DAN MCGINN: I don’t know about that, but the smartest guy in the room thing, I think we’re all focused on that to a certain extent.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So, what about this idea Ted? You talked about the fact that this is the kind of organization that you leave and want to come back. Could he do that?
TED CLARK: Do I think he could do that? I really truly do believe he could. If he’s, it sounds like a family business that respects their employees and appreciates their employees. They’d probably be very sorry to see him leave. And if they realize that he’s leaving for the right reasons and he expresses that clearly, and perhaps gives them a little bit longer lead time with when he’s going to go and if you leave on good terms with them and they sound like a warm, embracing group of people that would appreciate to bring back the smartest guy in the room.
DAN MCGINN: With his passion for travel, one of the things that I wondered is if he does go to a bigger firm, could he live abroad at a multinational? Would that be something that would appeal to him that would be a great developmental experience? And it’s clearly something a small company can’t give him which would give him the excuse, hey I just want to try this while I’m still young before I have children.
TED CLARK: Yeah, you can’t argue with that at all. I don’t think, you realize later on if you made a mistake or not, but if it’s a choice for a variety of reasons, I want more money, I want more diversity in what I’m doing, then yeah, you go.
DAN MCGINN: Ted, is it interesting that none of the three of us are really thinking about the money factor here? The fact that if he moved to a bigger company he’d probably be better compensated?
TED CLARK: If you’re looking at it for just the money, my personal opinion is you’re looking at it for the wrong thing. The money will wear thin very quickly. If you’re going to work and you’re miserable every day and you don’t like what you’re doing, and you’re fighting with your coworkers and the boss is a jerk, there’s no amount of money that’s going to compensate you for that. Well, maybe there is a certain amount of money, don’t compensate you for it. But at least in the reality of a marginal change in pay, it’s not going to be compensation enough to make that worthwhile. You’ll be miserable and hate it. The learning and the career opportunities are really, or in my opinion, should be the drivers to whether he stays or goes. He has a great opportunity to go in any direction, he just really has to decide personally what they want to do.
ALISON BEARD: I feel like it’s nice. We’re all coming around to each other’s point of views.
DAN MCGINN: You two are finally getting along.
ALISON BEARD: I know. [LAUGHTER]
TED CLARK: I personally think it’s their choice. It’s like what do you want to be when you grow up? But one thing, I’d like to make the point, whatever happens in the future, you can stay there for maybe 20 years and have some regret about staying there for 20 years, that there was an opportunity that you missed. But if you leave this place you are going to look back and reminisce, those were the good old days. This was a great place and great friends. So, you’re going to, at some point realize, just how good this place really was.
ALISON BEARD: So, Dan what are we telling this guy?
DAN MCGINN: Well, first we’re recognizing this letter writer is really happy. He has a great gig and he’s smart enough to recognize that. A lot of people would love to work at a company like this. It sounds like a really well run family business. At the same time, he doesn’t feel like he’s developing as quickly as he should. He doesn’t feel like he’s stimulated enough. And we think the first thing he should do is try to create more learning and development opportunities inside this company. Can they send him to training? Can he get a night degree? Can he do something to try to increase the learning curve and maybe do some of the learning outside the environment of the company? Long-term we think he should explore outside alternatives. Maybe he could live abroad and work for a larger company at the same time. Exercise his passion for travel. He might also think about whether he wants to be a boomerang employee, somebody who leaves the company for a few years to try something new but is destined to come back. Most of all he should recognize that he’s got a couple of great choices in front of him.
ALISON BEARD: Ted, thank you so much for joining us. I know we did disagree a lot, but I thought your advice was incredibly useful.
TED CLARK: Thank you very much, Alison. It was a pleasure to be here. That’s Ted Clark. He’s the Executive Director of the Center for Family Business at Northeastern University.
DAN MCGINN: Thanks to the listeners who wrote us with their questions. Now we want to know your questions. Send us an email with your workplace challenge and how we can help. The email address is DearHBR@HBR.org. On our next episode, we’ll be talking about getting fired. To get that episode automatically please subscribe.
ALISON BEARD: And if you liked the show, please give us a five-star review.
DAN MCGINN: I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Thanks for listening to Dear HBR:.
Read more: Harvard Business Review - Family Businesses
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