Who is the Chief Family Officer in Your Family Business?

By: Amy Wirtz

Have you ever heard this, “I am the owner and chief bottle washer of my business?” Every business has its own phases of management. Owners daily recognize themselves fulfilling the duties of a chief operations officer C.O.O., a chief financial officer C.F.O. and a chief executive officer C.E.O.  While we readily recognize these roles for people directly working in the business, family members must also recognize and undertake on roles within the family for the benefit of both the business and the family.

“Modern Family” aside, roles in the family normally are pretty settled.  However, a successful family business requires that someone pay attention to and manage the impact of the business on the family and that of the familial relationships on the business. This role, unique to a family business, is that of the Chief Family Officer. The issues and challenges of this role are discussed in detail in the book “Family, Inc.”, by Larry and Laura Colin. If you live and work in a family business I highly recommend reading this book.

The Chief Family Officer (hereinafter referred to as C.F.O.) is usually the spouse of the owner and is typically a woman, though that is changing in our country’s business arena. The Chief Family Officer manages the family relationships, which means dealing with issues in the business that impact or are impacted by family relationships.  This position is very significant in any successful family business. It is an extremely challenging position and must be done with grace, diplomacy, humor and firm and defined boundaries.

Growing up around a family business helped me understand the role of the Chief Family Officer. I watched my grandma do this my whole life. Our family business started as scrap yard and auto parts store in the early 1930’s. The “family” consisted of my great grandfather and his brothers.  Grandpa was of the belief that if you married into the family, you worked in the business no matter what your education or qualifications.  Our family business became a cousin’s consortium (meaning owned by four cousins as the second generation owners) and I can remember hearing stories of the power struggles that occasionally occurred over direction, position, and profits. As a matter of fact my grandfather, who is 91 years old, still tells me war stories of the conflicts that occurred over the business. More importantly, my Grandmother still has to negotiate between my Grandfather and my Uncle over the history of the business, identity issues and power struggles. She still smooth’s things out between them. That has been her role since she was married to my Grandfather 68 years ago.

As the Chief Family Officer, she helped host extended family dinners with over twenty people in attendance in order to keep the family together and family focused before, during and after the splits in their business and after board meetings. She told me that she would consistently hold “phone pow-wows” with her cousins to keep the peace and harmony on the family front.  While she never worked at the business, she created a “cocktail hour” at 5:00 pm where she just focused and listened to his business day Monday through Friday. This allowed her to keep her finger on the issues at work that impacted the family relationships and allowed her to help create solutions that were of course entirely all my Grandpa’s idea at the end of the day.

Do you or your spouse dread family holidays or Sunday dinners because of the bickering between family members? Do you find the head of the family business getting a “headache” right before dinner or right after? Does he/she exit stage right as soon as possible after the event? Is your birthday celebration ruined because the conversation is only about the next customer to court or the additional employee your daughter wants to hire and your husband thinks is a waste of money? Do you have siblings that will not be in the same room due to a misunderstanding at work? These areas of conflict are natural and occur constantly within a family that do not work together, but become more significant in different ways when the family is also running a business together.

Embracing the roles as Chief Family Officer you can help give a safe space to help relationships constructively blossom. Not only does that create happy and fun memories, that time allows the conflict take a rest. The trick is to provide enough family time while letting people have a break from one another.  You need to A.C.T. with tact and diplomacy in this role. Laura and Larry Collin describe A.C.T. in three steps.

First, you have to Accept the role and embrace the position. Know that you really do need to help manage the relationships without taking them over. You need to become the family go to person without abusing the position.

You can be and become that go to person if you Cultivate the family relationships. This may mean taking your daughter- in -law out just by herself to get to know her better and fill her in on the business history and roles. You will do more listening in this role than ever before.

Third, Take an interest in the business without meddling in the running of the business. Create a time that is focused on the spouse working in the business at least weekly and encourage this person to discuss the challenges with the business. This is not an invitation to take over, but to listen to what is causing him or her to stay up at night and to hear threats to the family relationships.

As Chief Family Officer you get to set the ground rules for the family social time. You can make it a work free zone. You can give them a baggage claim ticket and ask them to “check their baggage” at the door. The Chief Family Officer can set a timer for fifteen minutes and only allow shop talk for that amount of time. You can name a grandchild, son or daughter the role as the “cruise director” for the family time. He or she gets to set the agenda or plan the time. Try to create space for the family members who do not work in the business. Let him or her shine at a family event.  Consider having event time to help create memories. For example, maybe having dinner at your house where Dad is captain is not a good idea when there is shift of leadership roles at work. Try having a picnic at a park after your grandson’s baseball game.

The next blog will be about identifying when is it time to get help to reach your highest potential as the Chief Family Officer.