Meet the parents – family business style

He told me not to worry; he had sold our family business shares before meeting me, at a profit. 

The expectations which family business owners put on their children when finding their partner in life can be intense. Anna (not her real name) comes from a Vietnamese family with a grocery and real estate business in Europe. 

She said: “My parents really expected four things: he had to be Vietnamese and preferably speak Vietnamese, Czech and English, have studied abroad and was willing to move back to Czech Republic, and had to have some entrepreneurial background in his family. Easy right? 

“As I aged, my parents’ expectations did come down. But they were still disappointed when I came home with my high-achieving and highly educated Singaporean Government boyfriend. It took a while for them to see his value.”

In general, parents want the next generation to be highly educated and highly motivated, to have a sense of duty and responsibility towards the family and the family business. The partners their children choose will influence this outcome significantly. So, the preference for a family business background can be pronounced – less to do with wealth and more to do with speaking the same language, and a sense of motivation and duty.

Whether to create a more profound emotional brand or develop relationships that affect the ease of doing business, familial ownership has a value to protect. A new family member, who is not used to their presence or reputation affecting a business, can be in for a surprise. In today’s age of social media, the damage to a company’s brand or reputation can happen in a matter of minutes. 

If the new family member’s values clash with that of the family, this can cause problems. In the age of freedom of speech, this can be bewildering to new family members. No more make-up blog? No more pictures on Instagram? One couple interviewed has gone as far as asking guests to their wedding not to post any images or videos of the wedding. When the wedding video was circulated, it was leaked to the media regardless, which was deeply hurtful to the couple and the family. 

The role of the in-law

Keith whose wife owns a minerals business in the US, says: “I see my role as the person to vent to, but from my in-laws’ standpoint, I am the keeper of the golden eggs, the grandchildren.”

When Lucy’s partner met her father, he went on what felt like three consecutive job interviews, after which he gave his support for the relationship. Four months later, Lucy’s father was actively trying to hire her partner. She made her partner swear he wouldn’t accept a job in the family for at least five years; he negotiated her down to three.

Japan has leaned on in-laws for talent for centuries. For hundreds of years, owners of Japanese companies have been adopting their sons-in-law to recruit talent — a practice known as Mukoyoshi — giving rise to the saying “You can’t choose your sons, but you can choose your sons-in-law.”

Research on Japanese companies listed between 1962 and 2000 shows that businesses run by founders performed best, followed by sons-in-laws, who outperformed blood heirs as well as non-family professional managers.

Some people might think you have hit the jackpot; you’re marrying into a family with a family business and get a chance to run or participate in that business. However, families in Japan have, on average, 1.44 births per woman, which means that there are most likely no siblings to compete.

Outside Japan (and China), families are having fewer children. This leads to a smaller blood succession pool than there used to be. In-laws are now looked at as a potential source of succession, where in the past they were often taboo

Some might say that hiring an in-law protects businesses from some of the laziness and entitlement you can have with blood relatives. But it is likely those blood relatives will be quite hurt when you take a job they believe should be theirs by birthright. Not only might they feel professional rivalry, but there could also be a rivalry in the family unit. 

If it does go wrong, you might put your partner in a position where he/she must choose between you and the family. That will cause pain that might never go away, and if it doesn’t destroy the relationship with your partner or the family, it can linger.

Influencing a family business

Some family businesses have created rules and governance that in-laws are not allowed to work in the family business. But this does not mean you should not help the company. There are many roles an in-law can successfully take on; that of an advisor, board member, supporter.

Keith, the minerals in-law, who has his own career outside the family business, says he is often the one to remind, and influence, the board. “Remember that time you did not believe her, and she persevered and was successful? Maybe you should give her a chance on this thing you don’t agree on”. 

Anna agrees; not only is her partner wonderfully supportive, but he is also less emotionally invested. She says: “He does not carry the baggage that family members carry, and when looking at a difficult emotional decision like how to divide up equity, he reasons through it logically, which is of tremendous help.” 

While it might seem more comfortable for the family business to have banned in-laws so that you can craft your own path, this could create other problems. Dual-career couples are becoming more prominent. 

The era where one partner (usually the wife) followed the other around wherever required for career success is mostly goneBut what do you do if your partner must move somewhere? Are you then expected to give up your job, take the career hit and follow your partner? 

The risk in this is that not only can it unbalance the relationship, but it can also make the in-law feel their career – their life’s work – is secondary and less important than the family business. This could affect their self-identity.

Anna’s partner says: “There is pressure to do well, and to prove that I can stand on my own. I believe it’s more subconscious pressure to prove myself and establish and keep my own self-worth. I don’t want my work to be discredited for relying on the family business.” 

Any in-law coming into the family, but not the business, still has a massive impact on the success of the next generations through their values and education. Raising children to stay grounded, humble, and lead productive and happy lives rather than lives based on consumption will have an important effect, not only on the health and happiness of the children but also on potential successors and, thus the business and its employees themselves. 

Dinner time

Family dinners can also be quite different. Business performance, strategy, money and wealth can often be discussed. Some people have compared this to sitting at a table where everyone except you speaks a foreign language or acts like the dinner table is a board room. And you’re not sure you even have the right to ask for a translation. This can be uncomfortable and awkward for the new partner.  

So, the family must find space for other topics to include the in-laws. As an in-law, you are hardly able to force that on the family. The partner should try to educate a spouse, so they can contribute to a conversation or at least understand what is going on. 

In many family situations, gender roles still prevail. Daughters-in-law are expected to be good mothers, take care of the family and the home, and that will make her in-laws happy, while sons-in-law are expected to provide. However, it has been suggested that family businesses are more effective at promoting female leadership as part of the family than non-family businesses.

A checklist

While the above might seem daunting, there is still no reason you cannot have a loving and successful relationship with someone from a family business background. We suggest the following to set you up for success:

 As the in-law, make sure you understand the values of the family business as well as the family and your partner. All need to be compatible with yours, or it can lead to conflict.

 Set clear expectations of what you are and are not willing to do for the family business. Align on this with your partner.

 Try to get a more unobstructed view of how the demands and expectations of the family and family business might evolve over the years. This includes not only the impact on your career but how you might expect to raise the children, values, religion and languages.

 Create career maps for both partners, regardless of whether you or your partner decide to work for the family business. Figure out where compromise might be needed and what would be required in return.

 Share the results with your family. Make clear what you are not willing to do. That way, when an opportunity or a crisis shows up it is not a shock to the family.

 Make time for friends and relationships outside of the family and the family business: you will need them.

 Take care of yourself, your partner, and your mental health. It is a roller coaster; being able to stay calm in hot situations and help your partner look at situations without emotion will only benefit both of you. Negative pillow talk can be damaging to a relationship, as well as a family business.

Christina Wing is a faculty member at Harvard Business School and founder of the family business and family office advisory firm Wingspan Legacy Partners

Laurie Tack is a former Harvard Business School student and Director of Tessenderlo Group.


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