Hornet nests and beehives buzz with efficiency and productivity. How they operate is similar to many families and family businesses. First, each bee plays a specific role, which is either a drone or worker bee. Then, you have the Queen bee, who sets the tone of the hive and determines the role of each bee. In the “family business hive,” a King or Queen sets the family and business tone, and each family member and key leader fulfills a particular role. Through the expectations set by the King or Queen, culture is established, which is known to be the standard “norm,” and creates a belief the family and business hive is running smoothly and efficiently.
The set of roles and unaltering expectations set by the Queen Bee is the magic that makes a beehive work, but it can be the kryptonite of a family and family business. Bees are born to do their job and unequivocally follow the Queen. Mother nature is their guide. But, on the other hand, in the “family business hive,” humans seek meaning, making us complex and unpredictable. We long to be heard, have choices and opportunities for growth. When there is a lack of communication and information; it is an instinct to jump to conclusions; fill in the blanks, and create our meanings. And, what we come up with, is often nowhere close to the reality or intent of others, which creates conflict, miscommunication, strained relationships – AKA, a kicked hornet nest.
It is common in a family business to have specific topics that are not up for discussion, so, metaphorically, they are hidden behind a door with big red letters – DON’T TOUCH! Unfortunately, the big red door creates a dysfunctional functional norm for everyone who works in the company. For now, everything is “ok” and status quo the way the King and Queen want it, but there is a constant storm brewing under the surface. Especially as your family’s business sense grows, they emotionally mature and take on more responsibility in the business and or within their separate careers and family. Some examples of common scenarios we see hidden behind a tightly secured door include:
- A family member working in the business, and other family members not, but receiving perks and/or a salary from the business.
- Equal versus equitable estate planning, especially when family is working in the business and some not. My partner, Hugh Roberts, just wrote an excellent article on the drama that can play out in this scenario: “Gratitude or Resentment.”
- The future isn’t discussed; ownership and leadership are up for grabs amongst family and key leaders.
- Equal partnerships amongst Next-Gen leaders, with no discussion on how decisions will be made or governance that will support family and business relationships
In the beehive, when the Queen bee dies, the entire colony, often up to 100,000 bees, goes into disarray. Sadly, disarray also happens in family business environments when the King or Queen of the business moves on without facilitating strategies to set their family and business up for success. The difference between bees is, the disarray is temporary; they inherently know what to do to create order and crown a new queen. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy for humans. When faced with the unknown, we go into flight or fight and are not usually our best selves. We also apply historical family and business stereotypes and baggage in our interactions as a form of self-protection or defense mechanism.
Your business and family environment may feel ok right now. However, if some topics are locked away in the junk closet because they are not fun to deal with, it will not stay that way. It is in you, your family, and your business’s best interest to begin navigating uncomfortable discussions immediately. Otherwise, they can tear your family apart as well as your business. The good news is that you do not have to go it alone, and we challenge that you shouldn’t. An example from an advisor we collaborate with frequently just shared this insight with a client:
“You can either handle this now and possibly have your kids hate you, or you can do nothing and watch them lose the business later.”
Family and quality relationships are more precious than gold. Just as in the beehive, it is worth the investment of bringing everyone together. You do hard things every day. Yes, addressing difficult may be emotionally charged; but we can help shepherd you to the other side as experts. You can’t choose your family, but you were born into the family for a purpose. Each member can add something positive to each other, and when families come together (whether blood or not), the impossible can become possible.