Here’s something I hear way too often. ‘Our business is like a family,’ a client tells me, bursting with pride. ‘We all look out for each other.’
If that’s how you feel about your business, it’s probably time for a reality check. 
I’ve seen plenty of businesses go broke during my career—maybe 40 in total. Bankruptcy is painful. Behind every small business failure there’s a business owner or two. Usually a husband or wife, a father or mother. They grapple with depression, shame, and the grinding challenge of fending off the debt collectors. Not to mention divorce. Marriage breakups go through the roof when businesses fail. The extra stress lays bare any flaws in the relationship.
So if we’re all one big happy family, when the business goes bust, the staff rally around the boss, right? They drop off casseroles, help run the kids to school, offer a shoulder to cry on—you know, the way family members support each other in a crisis.
Guess again. With all the bankruptcies I’ve witnessed, how often did an employee ring the boss to check in, to see how they were travelling? Precise answer? Never. As for casseroles, forget it.
So let’s get real. You’re not family. You’re a business. Your employees are not your best buds. Maybe this feels too harsh. Trust me, it’s for the best.

Other Reasons You’re Not a Family

If you’re still hanging on to the illusion that your business is one big happy family, here are a few home truths to consider:

  1. Families play favourites. Remember how the media kept claiming Prince Andrew was the Queen’s favourite child? Can’t say he’d be mine, but thankfully he’s not my son. Thing is, even the wealthiest families are riven by jealousy. And if you play favourites in your business, you’ll create the same level of dysfunction we see in the royals. At least you won’t end up on the front page of the tabloids. Hopefully.
  2. Families are hierarchical. Dad thinks he’s in charge, Mum knows she’s in charge, and the kids have established their pecking order. How will that dynamic play out in a business where you need your people to share information and play nicely? Hint: you already know the answer.
  3. Families follow their own unspoken rules. Kids grow up observing their parents, figuring out how to keep them happy. Remember the first time a sibling brought a girlfriend or boyfriend home for dinner? Everyone’s on tenterhooks, waiting for the inevitable faux pas. Even if the evening passes without incident, everyone breathes a sigh of relief when the ordeal is over. Maybe this behaviour works for some families, but it’ll sink your business, where setting clear expectations is essential.
  4. Families keep secrets. They can become insular, closing themselves off to the world. Not a good look if you want to entice new customers and attract the brightest employees. Add a pinch of nepotism and you’re well on your way to creating a toxic workplace, where staff feel harassed but too scared to speak up. So they’ll grit their teeth, withdraw, and do as little as possible. Before you know it you’ll have an office, warehouse or factory full of reds. Until someone lodges an anonymous complaint with Fair Work, and everything blows up in your face.

Three’s Company

Many small businesses are run by two partners or two directors. Often a husband and wife, or two spouses if you prefer. Here there be dragons. If they can separate their marriage from their business, if they can communicate honestly about problems that occur in the business or in the broader economy, if they can hold each other to account when they screw up, they might just succeed.

But—and there’s always a but—a couple does not provide a solid base for any business. Especially when they’re closely intertwined. Why? Because deep down, most husbands and wives would rather live in harmony. Unless they get off on yelling at each other, which brings an extra dimension of chaos to the business!

If you’re running a typical ‘Mum and Dad’ business, bringing a consultant on board will strengthen both the business and the relationship. They’ll ground your business in reality and help increase your profits. Here are the qualities to look for in a business consultant:

  • A willingness to invest their time and energy in your business. So they’ll focus on solving problems, rather than acting as a marriage counsellor.
  • Objectivity—the ability to see things as they really are, rather than how they wish they could be. They’ll treat business problems as business problems, rather than a reflection of the state of your marriage.
  • A more strategic mindset. When you’ve been running a small business for a while, it’s easy to get caught up in the small things—staff gossip, your relationship with a testy supplier, or taking on too many tasks you really should delegate. The right consultant will help you pull back and focus on the big picture.
  • Complementary skills. You’re experts in your field. A consultant who understands people, strategy and numbers can bring all three into alignment. Your people are the key to your success, and a skilled organisational development consultant can help them realise their full potential.

As a consultant, I’ve helped stabilise many of my clients’ businesses. It’s just another way I add value. By helping my clients reduce their labour intensity, I give them more time to enjoy the fruits of their labour—and each other’s company.

© Evan Bulmer