“Should I return to the family business or not?”

I have had the opportunity to meet many students from family owned businesses. Here at the Johnson Graduate School of Business at Cornell University, we are launching a Family Business Club on Monday, September 29. I’ll ask the students that evening “What is the most important questions you hope to answer during your time here at Cornell?” Often, whether they articulate it or not, one of the most important questions they are seeking to answer is “Should I return to the family business or not?” While there may be no universal answer to this question, there are a few things that are common in many family-owned businesses that students and young professionals should expect to encounter while formulating their own answer:

  • Pride– Family businesses often exhibit a great deal of pride that accompanies a business being and potentially staying within the family. A strong position within the community, a well-known family name, and the satisfaction of creating a product or service all help top bolster the individual. This can be a strong draw for members of the family coming back to work in the business.
  • History – Related to pride, a shared history makes working in the family business attractive and rewarding. Growing up in the family business, trips to the office with mom or dad, working behind the counter or heading out on a call often create many enduring memories that become part of the family business heritage.
  • Respect– Next generation members of the family business often find it difficult to achieve a great deal of respect from co-workers or peers in the business. In the case where a college graduate may be returning to the business into a management position, he or she may be jumping over others who have worked at the business for many years.
  • Roles – Role clarification can often be muddled, especially for family members in the business. Knowing where the family ends and the business begins is critical but not always possible.
  • Communication– This is largely a function of how the family communicates. Some families are very guarded and private, some are open and welcoming. Be prepared to experience both.
  • Be entrepreneurial– This is something you should strive for. Family businesses that tend to endure across multiple generations are innovative, creative and entrepreneurial.  Your business will likely not be able to survive doing the same thing it has already done for generations. How will you leave your mark on the family legacy?

A student once shared with me when I asked her about returning to her family business after college: “It is always very emotional, but through various conflicts also come different visions and an appreciation for the multiple generations in the business. The most important lesson to me was understanding that inheriting the ‘family name’ requires twice the work and gets half the credit.”  Well said.

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