Like all of you I’m shut in, and being shut in I have to look out at my work and my business. What am I going to do? How am I going to emerge? Are my clients, my customers going to be there? What am I going to come out to? What is business going to be like in the future? And for a business family these concerns are very deep and we feel very helpless being home, not able to respond to them. We’re worried about cash: can we meet our fixed costs? We’re worried about employees: can we keep the people that have been really loyal to us and can we continue to employ them? Will our customers be there? How can we reopen? What are the new realities? These are all the things that we’re facing and because we’re shut in at home, we feel a lot of anxiety and a lot of pressure to react and not really good guidelines about how to do it.
In this time of anxiety, family businesses sometimes feel that they have to take action and they have to go against some of the values that have sustained them in the past. So for example, many families have a set of values about respect for employees: we’re all one, we all work together, we’re partners. They have values about the community, values about customers. And because they’ve been successful, these values haven’t been tested. So families are feeling that in this time of adversity they can’t really fully adhere to their values, they have to sacrifice them. And unfortunately, I think some families are reacting and taking action and doing things that they don’t need to do, that go against their values. So let me, give you a couple of suggestions for things that families are doing to live by their values in this time of adversity and not have to give them up and feel like failures.
First is transparency. As you feel a lot of anxiety about the future, well so does everyone else. We’re all in this together. And one of the things families are doing is reaching out. They’re reaching out, not only to their employees, and saying, “how are we going– what are we going to do?” They’re reaching out to their customers. They’re reaching out to their suppliers. And they’re sharing the dilemma and saying, “let us think together about what we can do and how we can do it.”
Second, the second thing that they’re doing is including people. In a family business, for example, there are some people that are running the business in the family, family leaders, and they’re doing things and facing challenges and pressures and they need to bring in other family members, they need to reach out to the family and share that dilemma. So the sense of inclusiveness that we’re all, before we rush in and do something we have to really listen to everybody and talk things through. Maybe not everybody is a decision maker, but we have to seek them out.
The third principle that I see is the idea of give-and-take. And that, as a value-based family you have things that you have done and that you want to do that may not be financially rewarding. But because you’re giving and because you have those values, you also have to have it– there’s a sense of give-and-take. For example, families, some families, some businesses have to lay people off. And they do that. But they do that by including everybody in the decision, by saying, “What should we do? Should we cut hours? Shall we cut back? How can we do this in a respectful way?” They’re doing things like setting up funds for employees that they’ve had to let go, they’re helping them find other things to do. They’re doing it in a respectful way with a sense of give-and-take.
And finally, and the most exciting thing I see is that families are using this as an opportunity to do things, to find new opportunities and to try out new ideas. They’re looking at new ways of working, they’re looking at new products, they’re looking at ways to do things more effectively.
So the challenge is in these tough times, and there are many challenges, the challenge is: how can I live by my values? How can I continue them in a time of adversity? Are values something that we can have for a– in wonderful abundant times, but that we have to sacrifice? And I want to suggest that it may be difficult and it may not be perfect, but I think as a family business we can continue to live by our values even in times of adversity.
Dennis Jaffe is a Cornell Family Business Fellow and a member of Wise Counsel Research Associates. Dennis is now in the third phase of his 100-Year Family Enterprise research project, resulting so far in five working papers. Dennis is a weekly contributor to Forbes Leadership channel, reporting on family cross-generational family business and wealth. For 35 years, Dennis was professor of Organizational Systems and Psychology at Saybrook University in San Francisco, where he is now professor emeritus. He received his B.A. in Philosophy, M.A. in Management and Ph.D. in Sociology from Yale University.