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Articles - Decision Making In Family - Business

Preparing spouse to manage business can ease succession later

Thursday, March 25, 2004



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Jay was 28 when he founded his sign business. He and his wife Teddie were thrilled when they opened their storefront. As a young couple, they had a lot of energy and worked long hours getting the office and shop ready, buying supplies, developing a business plan, joining the local chamber and greeting their first customers.

Jay took over full management of the operation while Teddie kept her full time job as an account executive for a women's fashion company. But Teddie was there through all of the growing pains of the business too. She helped with billing and emptied the trash. She took messages for Jay at home in the evening when he was working late. The goal was to build the business to a level where she would quit her job and come to work with Jay. In the meantime her job provided a steady paycheck and other benefits such as insurance.

As the business grew, so did Jay and Teddie's family and responsibilities. By the time their second daughter was born, the sign business was doing well enough to support the young family without Teddie's income. It would be tight, but the couple decided to take the plunge. Teddie quit her job to have the flexibility to care for her children and help out at the business.

For years Jay and Teddie ran the business this way. Although they shared equally in the ownership of the business and both worked long hours, Jay was really the manager and Teddie the home manager. Teddie would leave early to pick the kids up from school and get them to soccer practice. On some mornings she would come in late to the office because there was a dental appointment or a school field trip. At the office, however, she was fully in charge of her department . . . everything that Jay didn't do, such as the bookkeeping, billing, purchasing and replanting the flowerbeds by the front door. Jay did the management, hiring and firing, marketing, customer service and the technical work. Amid all of this the children got more involved with the business, at first just watching dad build a sign, and later learning complex computer work.

If you are typical of most family business owners, you could probably plug your names into this scenario and change only a few details to make it your own story. Likewise, if you are typical of most small business owners, you do not have a succession plan. You have been so busy establishing and growing your business that you haven't looked that far ahead. You may not even have the confidence yet that your business will be around that long. Or you may decide to sell the business and build several other empires before you retire or die. When you were getting your business underway, it never occurred to you that you were building a legacy; you were just going after your dream.

If you are among the rare few who have considered succession planning, more than likely you and your spouse have discussed which child is best suited to be president or if management responsibilities should be shared by siblings. If you are in partnership with your brother, mother, sister-in-law, or some other family member, you probably have a legal and financial plan for how the partnership will transition should one or the other of you die or wish to be bought out. However, if the family business is a sole proprietorship such as Jay and Teddie have, and the husband is the founder and president, it's highly unlikely that you have considered your wife as a successor to the business leadership. Yet it is the wife who is most likely to be thrown into that position with the death of the founder where no succession plan has been established.

In 1984 McKinley conducted an interesting study in which she found that a widow was more than willing to take over management of the business upon her husband's death, especially if she had been working with her husband. But even among those widows not working in the business side-by-side with their husbands, there was a strong desire to take over the management. These widows reported that the business was very meaningful to them that it was a part of their identity, that they had psychologically helped build the business. They did not want the business to pass out of their hands, even if they didn't know how to run it.

Furthermore, most of the widows studied did not know how to manage their husband's business, because they had not been trained. Their function had been auxiliary. They provided support such as Teddie has done for Jay. Therefore, these widows, untrained in the ins and outs of managing the family business, had to turn to their attorneys, CPAs and other advisors to educate themselves about the business. This is not sufficient training for the complexity of running a small business, as any business owner knows. But these particular women were determined and they learned as their husbands had done . . .by the seat of their pants.

This seat-of-the-pants training may have been sufficient for the founder, but it seems a waste to have the successor not benefit by her predecessor's lessons. Unless the business is a professional practice requiring college and certification that your wife could not readily get upon your death, preparing your wife to take over the business is a logical and practical step for most business owners. A side benefit is that once she is trained, the founder can turn his interests elsewhere, such as expansion or developing a second business entity. Growth of an empire is possible only when you have the flexibility and freedom to explore uncharted territory. If you are busy manning the helm, your growth will be limited to raising prices on product or adding a new line.

Preparing a wife for the presidency is no easy feat, however. It means acknowledging that the founder may die or wish to move onto something else. It means putting things into writing, such as compensation plans for your wife. It means letting go of control and allowing your wife to know all of the company secrets. It means that the marriage itself will be challenged. As the protégé grows in ability and leadership, the mentor may find himself eased out of power before he is ready. Can your marriage stand the strain of your wife being the boss, for example?

Making your wife your equal partner at work (provided she wants the job) and teaching her everything you know, will provide a solid succession plan. She will most likely be a devoted fan of yours and the business, and therefore a loyal and responsible guardian for the business. She will be a much better prepared widow than McKinley found in her study and less likely to lose the business. However, this also means redesigning the business today to accommodate two owners, two managers, two leaders. The consensus model of marriage that most Americans accept as the standard today will be brought into the business setting. Not only will husband and wife have to adjust to this change, but so will employees, customers and others used to a more hierarchical model.

Be prepared to change the structure of management when your wife becomes your management partner. No longer can the founder fly by the seat of his pants. Although you may feel that your style is cramped when there are two of you to answer to, remember that having a well trained successor (and one who loves you) means that the business has a much more bright and stable future.

Defining entrepreneurial style as a couple can keep business from getting complicated

Thursday, November 27, 2003




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


If you have read my columns in the past, you are aware that I frequently refer to couples in business as entrepreneurial couples. Now that I have bandied the term around for several years, it is probably time to formally define just what I mean.

Some of you may not even recognize yourselves as entrepreneurial couples because you have always been entrepreneurial, or come from entrepreneurial families, or the style is so common (especially here in the Northwest) that you never considered a definition important.

However, defining the type of entrepreneurship that you and your spouse share can be very enlightening. Knowing who you are and why you are that way will assist in problem solving and future planning, as the following case examples will show.

Even though there are always exceptions to the rule there are three basic entrepreneurial couple styles to start with. You may be a blend of two or even three and you may have changed your style over time. However, I am sure you will find your bedrock image in one of these styles. They include the solo-entrepreneur with a supportive spouse, the dual-entrepreneurial couple, and the copreneurial couple.

Solo-entrepreneurs

Bob and Carol used to work together in their successful nursery and garden supply business, but Bob has since returned to his old employer leaving Carol to manage the business on her own, as a solo-entrepreneur. Bob has become the supportive spouse. He is employed elsewhere, providing emotional support to his wife's business, but not really involved in the day-to-day management and headaches of running it. Carol, on the other hand, recognizes her talent as an entrepreneur and is much better suited to running the operation on her own as a sole proprietor.

Dual-entrepreneurs

Another style involves dual-entrepreneurs like Sharon and Dave, who each run separately their respective businesses. Sharon is a realtor and Dave runs several successful small businesses. Dual-entrepreneurs are like solo-entrepreneurs in that each spouse is an entrepreneurial spirit tending to their own sole-proprietorship (or even partnership with a non-family member). They also may function as a support person to their entrepreneurial spouse. What distinguishes dual-entrepreneurial couples from the others is that they each have the entrepreneurial spirit yet they are not in business partnership with their spouses.

Copreneurial couples


Larry and Dorothy, who for 15 years have worked side by side building their farming enterprises, are a copreneurial couple. Copreneurs share ownership, management and responsibility for their business as full-time partners. Copreneurs are different from dual-entrepreneurs in that they operate a joint venture. One partner may have more of the entrepreneurial spirit than the other partner, but they both are equally committed to the enterprise as owners and managers.

Defining your style

So what is the real value of knowing your style and that of your partner? Stan and Rhonda didn't evaluate their entrepreneurial style before they launched their successful retail chain, but they could have avoided many painful bumps in the road if they had taken the time to really talk and learn about each other.

Stan was restless and wanted to try his hand at running his own successful business. When Stan began talking about starting his own business, Rhonda agreed that they made an excellent team not only because of their love for each other, but because of their combination of professional skills. She was excited to get started on the venture.

Clearly though, this was Stan's adventure. True to his organizer style, he researched the marketplace to discover the most advantageous industry and location for his new business. Unlike the entrepreneur who pursues a business because they have a passion for a particular industry or product, Stan is the type of entrepreneur who can take any good idea and make it into a profitable venture.

When Stan discovered the right business for him, a store that specializes in a variety of environmentally friendly products for the home remodeler, the couple began the second phase of development. The plan was for Rhonda to keep her job for the steady income and benefits. Stan quit his job and threw himself into the work of getting the business funded and off the ground. Rhonda helped in the evenings and on weekends with whatever odd jobs Stan could not get to.

In this manner the business grew from one retail outlet to two within three years. At this stage the couple needed to reassess Rhonda's role. Stan could no longer manage alone and still achieve his dream of building a franchise business. Although Rhonda was ready to quit her job and come to work full time with her husband, Stan was not emotionally ready to share entrepreneurship with Rhonda. Their relationship worked fine when Rhonda was a supportive spouse, but when she left her job, Stan felt that she was usurping his territory. After a tumultuous year of trying to work together as copreneurs, Stan and Rhonda realized that Stan needed to hire professional management and that Rhonda would continue working in corporate America. They just were not cut out for the challenges of running a family business. What best suited this couple is the model of solo-entrepreneur with a supportive spouse.

Your role as the entrepreneur or the supportive spouse is much less complicated if you, as a couple, clearly define the type of entrepreneurship that suits your personalities best. If you are a hard driven, competitive type, probably you will do best as a solo-entrepreneur. If both of you are this type, try dual-entrepreneurship. If you are team players and enjoy sharing the spotlight with the one you love, copreneuring is for you. And if you are the quintessential woman/man-behind-the-scenes, and you don't really want to be too involved in the daily managing of your partner's venture, you are well suited to be the supportive spouse.

Don't avoid conflict and confrontation when you work with your spouse

Friday, August 08, 2003




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


"I just let him handle things his way."

"We're not very good at resolving problems, so I let it go."

"I just hate confrontation!"

Listening, talking, communicating, resolving problems, making joint decisions... these are requirements for all business owners, not just entrepreneurial couples. Yet entrepreneurial couples often complain that communicating effectively with each other is the last thing they do.

Without good communication skills and quality time dedicated to communicating, relationships (business and personal) soon flounder and fail, especially among couples with the stress of two careers, or a joint enterprise, and a full family life. Moreover, the potential for a breakdown in communication grows as the complexity of the family/business system increases.

As a member of an entrepreneurial couple you are under more stress and potential conflict than others. The worlds of your personal life and work life overlap considerably, creating more intersecting points. This creates a highly complex system of constantly changing roles and rules.

Because you cannot really separate home and work, you must learn how to integrate these two worlds better. The tools you used for communicating and resolving conflicts before you worked together may just not be good enough anymore. As an entrepreneurial couple you and your spouse face dilemmas that may have never surfaced before to give you worry. This means you need to enhance your communication and problem solving skills beyond simple linear cause and effect (i.e. blame).

A major reason entrepreneurial couples don't talk is that they are avoiding conflict and confrontation. There is a common misconception that conflict and confrontation are bad. One of the major reasons entrepreneurial couples have problems is their failure to confront issues head-on. They may fight openly or quietly seethe, but they have a terrible time confronting the real conflict respectfully and honestly.

It's as if confrontation and conflict are impolite. However, conflict and confrontation are natural and healthy components of any relationship. You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.

Do not fear conflict and confrontation. Because of the highly complex and interactive, multi-level system you have created as an entrepreneurial couple and family, conflicts are inevitable and actually a sign of growth. Therefore, avoiding conflict is not the goal. Rather you want to develop the tools to "lean into" conflicts and resolve them early on, so that you can reorganize your lives to include the new learning. Because entrepreneurial couples have a lot at stake when it comes to their business and their relationship, they are prone to avoid conflict or to use ineffective tools to solve the conflict too quickly. Compromising and acquiescing are two of these ineffective tools.

Most couples are shocked when I advise them to avoid compromises at all costs. After all, isn't compromise a requirement of partnership, both personal and business? The reality is that decisions that are arrived at through compromise usually lack creativity and seldom last. Sure, a compromise now and then may be necessary for the sake of expediency, but if a decision is important, a compromise may cause anger and resistance. Because compromises are usually a result of both people giving up something in order to get an agreement, the decision is a watered-down version of two stronger opinions. While it may be satisfactory to accept compromise decisions for things like choosing a restaurant for dinner, where neither of you gets your first choice but both must accept a third alternative, accepting a third, less-threatening alternative for your business may sabotage your competitive edge.

Compromise is the easy way out when you are trying to avoid conflict and confrontation. It appears that the compromise will smooth ruffled feathers and that both partners can go away happy. What really happens, however, is that each partner leaves feeling as though they have been had.

One person may resent having to compromise and will be looking for ammunition to prove that the decision was a bad one. Another person may feel he or she has done the honorable thing by not pushing his or her opinion on the other, only to feel unappreciated later when the compromise plan is dropped. If you stop and think about it, how long have your compromise decisions really lasted?

Acquiescing or forcing your opinion upon your partner are other ways of avoiding conflict. In seeking to avoid conflict, for example, a persuasive person may push his or her partner to acquiesce to a certain point of view, but this does not mean that the partner agrees. It may mean only that the partner actually does not want to fight and so appears to agree, when he or she has only given in.

Don't make the mistake of pushing to win at all costs or to acquiescing to the persuader, when you don't agree. In either case, if you are the persuader or the acquiescent partner, the conflict has not been resolved and, what's worse, may have been driven underground.

If you don't make time to talk, if you don't consider nurturing your personal relationship as important as nurturing your business, and if you avoid healthy conflict and confrontation, your partnership/relationship will disintegrate into two uninvolved business associates at the best, and into bitterness and divorce at the worst. So take the time now to evaluate your communication skills and your life/business plan. Invest in the time to develop a meaningful, loving relationship with your spouse that enhances your business relationship.

Communication can pose big challenges to members of family businesses

Friday, July 11, 2003




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


The most common problem brought into my office is that of communicating with others, a spouse, a boss or coworker, a child. No matter what level of society or what kind of job the person comes from the art of communicating so that others will listen is an art that is difficult to cultivate.

There are many reasons for this and they are amply exemplified in family businesses. First, a family is a group of members from two genders and two, three or four generations. Spicing the soup further, is added the interaction of the family system with the work environment and non-family coworkers and employees. Third, family members are often baffled by communicating with the ones they love. Isn't love all that is necessary to form a strong relationship?

As a result I am frequently asked to help members of family businesses to iron out their communication difficulties, especially the ones that have lead to an impasse at work, or to the brink of divorce, or to a feud between parent and child. Until the misunderstandings are ferreted out, and new communication skills learned, members of a family firm may stay in a quagmire of distrust for years.

LOOK FOR THE MEANING BEHIND THE WORDS


The first place to start if you want to be heard is to listen yourself. But this is easier said than done. Listening is a very creative component of communicating. However, once you become good at listening, half the current misunderstandings will disappear.

One simple way to begin your education at becoming a better listener is to ask yourself "Why is he or she telling me this?"

In other words, you are looking for the meaning behind the words. People have good intentions. They are trying to communicate with you. But often their words don't reflect the in respond to this inner meaning, you must put yourself in his or her shoes and ask yourself what is the meaning behind these words or behavior?

INTERPRETING THE HIDDEN MESSAGES

Another step in becoming a good listener is to realize that people cannot not communicate with you. That is, they are always sending you meaningful (meaningful to them) messages if you can only learn to interpret them. So, even if you think you are getting resistance from someone, realize that this individual is telling you something that is important to them. Perhaps your grown son is not attending to his responsibilities at work, despite repeated conferences with you, because he feels that he is constantly in "the old man's shadow." Or perhaps your husband works 60-70 hours a week at the family business because he believes that by being a good provider he is demonstrating his love and loyalty to you.

UNDERSTANDING THEIR "MAP OF REALITY"

After practicing nothing but listening for a few weeks, you should be getting pretty good at figuring out the other person's reality. Remember, we all live in our "maps" of reality. Your interpretation of reality is not necessarily superior to any other person's. Maps are just a convenient way to structure our lives. In figuring out another person's map of reality and responding to it, you begin to let the other person feel respected, appreciated, even loved.

SPEAK THEIR LANGUAGE

In order to respond to another person, it is necessary to put your own ego aside. Listen, observe and learn the "language" of the other person. Once you begin to speak their language, you will be surprised how much they want to learn yours. In other words, the real key to learning to talk so that others will listen is to learn the art of drawing people to you. By developing your creative listening skills, others will want to talk with and listen to you too.

Perhaps you remember the short story "The Gift." The story tells of a young couple that was so poor at Christmas that they had no money to buy each other a gift. So the young man sold his pocket watch to buy his sweetheart a comb for her long beautiful hair. And the young woman cut and sold her hair to purchase her husband a watch fob for his pocket watch. The willingness to sacrifice your own needs temporarily and step into the other's world brings rewards that are deeper than a comb and a watch.

Dan and Jane had a similar problem when they came for consultation. Their communicating skills were so bad that they were on the brink of divorce even though they still loved each other. Dan complained that his wife was not supportive. Because he worked long hours seven days a week, he wanted her to be more supportive when he came home. She on the other hand, resented these long hours and the fact that she was left to manage the household and three young children by herself. By the time Dan finally got home in the evening, Jane wanted to turn the children over to Dan so that she could rest. Dan wanted the house clean and the children fed when he got home.

This couple worked valiantly at trying to break through the communication barriers, but their maps of reality were radically different. Instead of being more supportive at the end of the day, Jane planned extra social activities for she and her husband, hoping that luring him away from work, would help him relax. This only made Dan mad and unappreciative. And in order to coerce her "support" Dan would give Jane "assignments" to accomplish before the day's end, so that he wouldn't have any work to do when he arrived home. Needless to say, she got even less accomplished than before.

The solution for this couple lies in learning to understand the other's map of reality and responding to it, rather than imposing one's will onto the other person. Dan needs appreciation for the sacrifices he makes to support his family. Jane needs appreciation for the sacrifices she makes to support her family. Then they both need to stop sacrificing! A reevaluation of just what each needs and wants and is capable of creating is in order.

By listening and responding to the maps of family members, coworkers, friends and others, one improves his or her capacity to be listened to. Practice listening and determine how many different realities there are out there!

Resolving conflict can protect the family unit and business

Thursday, February 13, 2003




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


Ask yourself who you would rather work with, a family member or a trusted friend or colleague. List five family members whom you trust and five friends or colleagues whom you trust. Of these ten people, with whom would you choose to start a brand new business?

When I asked this question recently of attendees at a trade show, the majority said they would work with a friend before they would a family member. Their reasoning is that they wouldn't want to risk alienating a family member and upsetting the entire family if the business partnership should not work out. What is most interesting about their responses is that a good 90% of the attendees were already working in a family firm!

While the rewards of working with the ones you love are many, such as the benefit of working with someone whom you trust and who will work as hard as you do, there are significant liabilities. The major one that plagues most family firms is the inability to resolve conflict constructively. This inability leads to resentment, hostility, alienation and family feuds.

Family firms have the unique distinction of blending both the needs of a family and the needs of a thriving business. While the goal of the business is growth through competition, the goal of the family is to nurture and protect all family members. As a result, family firms grow more slowly than non-family owned firms because the business growth is compromised by the need to protect family members, even those who do not really belong in the business.

Conflict in any family is disagreeable, but it is even more so in a family that also works together. Ordinary conflicts that other business owners have to deal with are submerged in a family business for fear of "hurting" a family member's feelings, or offending one's parent or spouse. The need to protect the family system, to keep this system in tact, is quite strong. All of us grew up with the knowledge that to betray a family rule was to risk the safety of the family.

Anthropologists suggest that this protection of the family system is a part of our survival as a species. We seem to have a genetic need to belong to a family where we can share food, shelter and emotional comfort with our kinfolk. Political experiments that disrupt the standard family unit usually do not last. Research is even showing that children learn better in school if educators structure assignments to better represent individual student's family values.

Given that belonging to a family is a stronger need than striking out on one's own, families tend to discourage conflict and confrontation. This keeps family members home. However, in a business, avoiding conflict can lead to serious problems. Sometimes out of conflicts arise tremendous ideas for the growth and success of the business. Wrestling with ideas brings out resolutions never before thought of and it often clears the path for junior members of an organization to show what they are made of. But in family firms, all too often conflicts get submerged rather than aired in a healthy context.

Those of you who currently work with your spouse or other family members may be thinking that conflict is rampant in your family. The problem is that the frequent fighting may not be solving anything. When ordinary conflicts get submerged as they too often do in family firms, things fester. Family members may brood or bicker but never really confront the issue head on. Sometimes there is a major blow up at the office, but this is not healthy confrontation. This is merely "letting off steam," only to have it build up again until the next fight.

Some of the signs of submerged conflict in family firms are (1) the increase in alcoholism and drug dependence among family firm members; (2) infidelity and multiple marriages or liaisons; (3) child abuse; (4) acting-out children (i.e., poor grades, suicide threats, drug abuse, numerous traffic violations, disregard for the rights of others); (5) chronic depression; (6) frequent fighting to no end.

In order to get to the bottom of conflicts, family firm members need to be brave. You need to trust that you are doing what's best for the family as well as the business by confronting family problems. Even if you have the minority view, it may be an important view. In your family and family firm there may be room for more than one view.

Confrontation need not be nasty and abusive. Confrontation is just "taking the bull by the horns." Be respectful but firm. Acknowledge that you may not be right, but that the family needs to talk. Keep talking until the family has come to a mutually agreeable solution.

Most people report that they feel closer to those with whom they have resolved conflicts. The misunderstandings that lead to the conflicts are often just that, misunderstandings, not a major difference in values. And if you discover that there is a major difference in values and these differences are not good for the business, it's best to discover these differences so that sound business decisions can be made. If a father and son really want to take the business in different directions, perhaps they should part the business, not maintain a cool emotional distance from each other in the office.

But rest assured whether a member leaves the business or not, the family goes on forever. Conflict and confrontation strengthen a family, despite the unpleasantness in the moment of unresolved dissension. While it's true that families take on different shapes and sizes over the years as children marry, grandchildren are born, founders die, even an occasional divorce, the family as an entity survives. The same cannot be said for a business. It can be sold or dissolved permanently.

One of my daughters brought home this poem by an unknown author and I think it sums up the values that any family business should be proud to live by.

Our family's like a patchwork quilt
With kindness gently sewn.
Each piece is an original
With a beauty of its own.
With threads of warmth and happiness
It's tightly stitched together
To last in love throughout the years
Our family is forever.

Is it time to renegotiate your marriage/business contract?

Thursday, January 02, 2003




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., P.S.


Think for a moment about the tasks you perform in your role as husband or wife. Who does the laundry? Who cooks breakfast? Who chauffeurs the children to events? Who balances the checkbook? Who changes the oil in the car?

Now think again about the task assignments at work (for those of you who work with your spouse this is particularly meaningful). Who does the bookkeeping? Who greets the customer? Who hires new employees? Who negotiates the contracts? Where does the "Buck stop"?

Don't be limited by the few questions mentioned in the last two paragraphs. Make a list of your duties and those of your spouse and really evaluate the division of labor, both at home and work. Then ask yourself (and your spouse), just how did we arrive at this division of responsibilities anyway?

Most married couples never stop to think about consciously discussing duties, tasks, chores, and responsibilities. Things just follow a certain course and you are either happy with it or not.

Actually the research shows that in most family firms, job assignments both at home and at work follow traditional gender divisions of responsibility. That is, men do "men's work" and women do "women's work." At work the wives generally handle the bookkeeping and support work and at home they take care of cooking, cleaning and children. The husbands are the leaders and decision makers at work (and at home), while at home they handle small repairs.

In contrast, dual-career couples have a non-traditional division of responsibilities. Wives and husbands are generally responsible for leadership and decision-making at work. At home, these couples think of themselves as "social partners" who are equally responsible for household and childcare duties. This non-traditional style is called "egalitarian."

Regardless of the marital style, traditional or egalitarian, all couples, both copreneurs and dual-career couples, report satisfaction with their style. The traditional copreneurs do not desire an egalitarian style and the egalitarian dual-career couples do not desire a more traditional style. This concept is called "equity." It means that even if the division of responsibilities isn't equal (at home or work), nor based upon assignment to the most qualified, these couples feel that the assignment is fair.

But what about those copreneurs who desire an egalitarian style? Or those dual-career couples who desire a more traditional style? Or what if you and your spouse are a blend of the two, not really fitting into either camp? Then your job is much more difficult, but not impossible. It becomes necessary to sit down together and analyze your situation. First, answer the question, "what do you want?"

Your marriage contract is more than a marriage license. It is a group of assumptions that you make about marriage and your partner and yourself. The assumptions you first made at age 22 may not fit for you at 42. The assumptions that guided you through those first years were probably modified when the children came along. They were further modified as the children entered college or when you started your business. Yet, probably neither one of you thought to sit down and analyze what you wanted or what was best given the new set of circumstances.

So your first task is to answer the question, "what do you want now in your marriage and business partnership, considering your current situation?" Be flexible. Be willing to let go of old ways that worked once, but are no longer appropriate. Both partners in the marriage must feel that the division of responsibilities is equitable, but does the division also represent what is best for the business and each of you personally and professionally?

Another important task in this renegotiation of the marriage/business-partnership contract is to quell the inevitable fears that arise. I often hear people say, "I'm not going to change; you knew who I was when you married me; you better be happy with that!"

Unfortunately, if you give into these fears your marriage and the business are in for a rude awakening. Things do change and people move on. All of us change daily and it's doubtful that you are the same person you were twenty or thirty years ago, and neither is your spouse. When you hear your spouse complaining about change, or hear these words coming from yourself, realize that they are coming from a place of fear...fear of change and fear of the unknown. Change is inevitable and it will overtake you, or you can plan a little and guide the change process. It's your choice.

Successful marriages are neither traditional nor egalitarian, but are based upon a flexible marriage contract, one that changes with the needs and circumstances of the individuals involved. Just as a business must be aware of competition and marketplace factors, and change or lose, a marriage faces the same perils. While it is important to keep certain basic values in tact, there is much room for negotiation and change throughout the life of the marriage and the business.

Nancy and Steven had a traditional marriage during the first 30 years. Nancy helped put Steven through medical school, took care of the children, and even helped set up Steven's office. When the children were old enough she moved from part-time to full time in the clinic, managing the business. Steven meanwhile buried himself in his work and over the years developed a successful medical practice and the respect of his patients.

At the thirty-year mark, however, Nancy got restless. The kids were grown and grandchildren on the way. Steven didn't really need her in the office anymore, so she dropped back to part-time again, and went back to school. Four years later she was a lawyer. In order to help Nancy get going in her new profession, Steven peddled back on his practice by finding a responsible M.D. partner to take on some of his caseload.

Although it takes planning and recognition of keeping things equitable, it is possible to change marital and business styles when the need arises. Evaluate your situation now. Is it time to talk with your spouse and make some changes before they erupt into irreconcilable differences? Or if they are already erupting, take them on and make the most of the change for personal, marital and business growth.

Couples can balance dynamics of decision-making process

Thursday, November 23, 2000




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


Have you ever wondered why the symbol for "Justice" is a woman and she's blind to boot? Or another curiosity is that the statue in New York harbor, representing the United States of America is Lady Liberty. What is it that these female spirits represent? Why are women the symbol of our judicial system and the country as a whole? I think a partial answer may come from observing the growth of entrepreneurship among American women, both as solo entrepreneurs and as entrepreneurial couples.

Now that women are starting businesses in record numbers (i.e. three to five times the rate of men!) there are many more stories about startups that involve women entrepreneurs. Especially the Internet and telecommuting have opened an avalanche of opportunities for women. Women are also better educated than before and many are educated in traditionally male dominated fields such as business management, the sciences, and engineering. As a result we are gathering more and more information on how these women function as entrepreneurs and how they are different than men.

In spite of parity in education, equal access to financing and an Internet marketplace that doesn't impose gender restrictions, there are a few male/female traditions that hold. When the owner is female you may not see much difference in a company, either with the product or the revenue. However, the differences between male and female entrepreneurs become more apparent when a husband and wife equally own and operate a company. Management, decision-making, even operations are powerfully influenced by these style differences. This can be an asset, of course . . . the integration of a male perspective and a female perspective. But often a husband and wife get stuck because they do not recognize the dynamic that is going on.

One of the most interesting of these dynamics between a husband and a wife who are both entrepreneurs is how they make decisions. One way I sum it up is that men make the first best decision, but women seek out the best-best decision. In the fashion of Lady Justice (where the blindfold represents impartiality), women want to look at all sides of an issue before deciding anything. They value everyone's opinion in the process of moving toward a decision. They may have a strong opinion themselves, but like the blind Lady, they are willing to stay impartial until they have gathered enough information from others. Men on the other hand seek to move the organization along as swiftly as possible. Regardless of everyone's view, men tend to value the efficiency of getting to the answer quickly. If a man has an opinion, dialogue with others is not always to merely gather information, but to persuade others toward his point of view.

How does this dynamic work when a husband/wife team needs to make decisions together? If they understand each other well, then the decision-making dynamic is powerful. If they don't, then each party can feel very misunderstood. For example, if the wife is gathering information from her husband regarding some aspect of the business, then she may initiate a discussion with her husband. He often doesn't hear that she wants to discuss the subject. Rather he hears that she wants him to make a decision. Therefore he tells her his decision and considers the discussion completed. She leaves unfulfilled because she wants to toss ideas around before a decision is made. Later when the husband's decision is not carried out, the husband may feel frustrated because he thought a decision had been made. Sound familiar? It's because women tend to have discussions and men tend to go strait to decisions.

When a husband and wife work together there is the potential to create a strong leadership for their organization. When a husband recognizes that his wife needs an impartial discussion with a variety of options before deciding, she feels understood and more inclined to move toward decisive action.

When a wife recognizes that her husband has a need to get things done as efficiently as possible, she can refocus her energy onto solutions, even if she would like just a little more discussion.

Lady Liberty represents this principle of the combined talent and energy of an entrepreneurial couple. That is, a woman was chosen to represent America rather than a conquering male warrior, because of the desire to represent our country as welcoming immigrants (i.e. ". . . give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"). Lady liberty is carrying a torch in her hand, not a sword, symbolizing the enlightenment of democracy that shines out to the world. She holds the Declaration of Independence in the other hand as evidence that we are all created equal. On her ankle is a chain that is broken, representing freedom from oppression. Yet the statue is enormous, representing strong and powerful leadership and even domination in the world.

In other words, when making a business decision an entrepreneurial couple can combine the wife's strengths and the husband's strengths, and may just be what the business needs to keep its competitive edge in the marketplace. Just as Lady Liberty welcomes immigrants, the wife can welcome a variety of options and possible solutions to a problem, weighing those options impartially just as Lady Justice does. Lady Liberty also represents decision making in that she is holding the Declaration of Independence or the law of the land, just as the husband's strength is to get the decision made and follow it with action, as is implied by the sword that Lady Justice holds. In either case, whether it be the husband's or the wife's decision-making strategy, the goal is a fair decision, something both Ladies stand tall for.

To be sure many women entrepreneurs have the same decision-making qualities as men do. And there are male entrepreneurs who carefully weigh options before deciding. However, it is the interaction between men and women where you see the tendency to lean toward the more traditional roles. If you work with your spouse, you probably know what I am talking about. Now take this awareness and use it to the fullest to take your enterprise to a new height and enlighten the world with your success.

Do your and your spouse bicker at work and at home?

Thursday, January 06, 2000



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

"Oh yeah! I used to work with my wife, but not anymore. All we did was fight."

"We're great business partners, but at home we bicker constantly. What's wrong?"

"Work with my husband? Never! He never listens."


Bicker, bicker, bicker. Is this the price you pay when you work with your spouse? All too often this seems to be the case, but it doesn't have to be. If you understand conflict and develop strategies to de-stress problem situations, you and your partner can have the best of both worlds: a fantastic marriage and a successful business team. Here are some of tips for resolving the bickering.

Remember that the differences between the two of you are probably some of the reasons that made you fall in love with each other.

There may be many reasons for conflict, but a common one for spouses who work together is that you know each other too well. Remember when you first met, first fell in love, decided to get married? You probably didn't focus at the time on everything that you didn't like about your new love. In fact, you may have never noticed anything that big, but instead viewed those differences as thrilling. But over time, the differences between the two of you surface more and more. What once was ignored or even viewed as endearing is now a pain in the neck. Or your spouse may have qualities that worked well in the home when you didn't work together, but in the office they seem to make the two of you tangle.

One way to get past the bickering is to remind yourself that you love and admire this person. Your spouse has many great qualities that contributed to your choosing him or her as a spouse and a business partner. Focus on those qualities, not the behavior that annoys you.

People change over time, so bickering may be a sign that it's time to renegotiate your agreements (martial and business).

You can't possibly know everything about another person before marriage or even before becoming business partners. Who knows what qualities will emerge on a person as they enter new territory (which we are constantly doing throughout life)? Our basic personalities probably don't change that much, but how we apply our personalities to the experiences in life does shape and define us. Your spouse may be showing you a side of him or herself that you never knew existed. Be careful not to resist this new information because it is different. Give yourself time to adjust to the change. Talk about it with you spouse. Evaluate how to incorporate the change into your marriage agreement and business partnership agreement. Change may be painful, but it is the very nature of living things to change.

Entrepreneurial couples should spend as much time cultivating joy in their relationships as they do focusing on the bottom line in their businesses.

It's just a fact. All of us work more than we would like to. Even when you love the work you do, you should strive to find balance among the other important parts of your life, such as your relationships with your spouse, family, friends and yourself.

Entrepreneurial couples are notorious for being all work and no play, and therefore the relationship suffers. Think about it. If you are bickering with your spouse/business partner, could it be because you have had no quality time lately? Or could it be because you are sleep-deprived? Or could it be that it's been a long time since you laughed?

Take the time to set your priorities and follow them. There will always be another phone call to answer and another deadline to meet that will draw you away from balancing your priorities. But you don't get that many chances to restore a faltering relationship. When the love, trust and respect is gone, it usually leads to divorce.

Be true to yourself and offer the same to your spouse/partner.

Entrepreneurial couples seldom have formal education or training in the art of living their unique lifestyle. So, through trial and error they come up with a system to get the job done, and they do so admirably, but the job is all that gets done. Sometimes the work is not very creative. Often the excitement and challenge that brought them into business wears thin. The result is a successful business that produces a good income for its owners, but leaving no room for personal and professional development. Then the bickering starts again.

It seems to be true that when we are bored, we bicker. When this happens, it is time to take stock of how the business is organized. Is the business truly a reflection of your talents, or is it running you? Are the spouses/business partners really suited to the jobs they currently have, or have they outgrown them?

If you are really being true to yourself and your partnership, duties should be assigned according to the best suited to the task. In other words, fully use your talents. For example, if the founder of the business doesn't have good people skills, perhaps the spouse should be president. That way the founder can keep doing what he or she does best, invent things for example, while the more people-oriented spouse can run the business and manage employees and customers.

Be full-time partners at home and at work.

Husbands and wives who work together often slip into efficiently getting things done, but in a hierarchical, military model. Research shows that copreneurs opt for the husband-boss/wife-employee model more often than other entrepreneurial or dual-career couples. Instead of equal partners, these couples slip into the traditional chain of command by which only one person can be the boss.

One day my husband was particularly exasperated with me and confronted me with this question, "Just who is the boss around here anyway?" I was startled, because I thought he knew! Taking a moment to compose myself I replied, "We both are."

A husband and wife, whether partnering at home as parents or partnering at the business, are both full-fledged adults who contribute to the joint venture. They both should take full responsibility for the outcome of the venture. In other words you are both 100 percent boss and 100 percent responsible.

I believe bickering for these couples is a sign that one partner or the other is feeling powerless in the relationship or business. If the decision-making power is vested with one person, but the other spouse still has major responsibilities but no authority, you have ripe territory for passive-aggressive behavior-bickering.

If you and your spouse are bickering about nothing in particular, or the same argument comes up over and over again, or you are bickering now that you work together but you didn't bicker before, or most important, you bicker but you never remember what it's about, take stock of the relationship and ask what needs to change. The simple answer is not to work together, but then you might be missing the most creative team you'll ever be a part of. Plus, you may miss those early warning signs that the marriage and/or the business plan need to be revamped.

Instead, take the bickering as growing pains and be grateful that you have a spouse who is so important to you that you care enough to get mad about their idiosyncrasies.

Could Your Wife Run The Business In Your Absence?

Friday, June 04, 1999



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Jay was 28 when he founded his sign business. He and his wife Teddie were thrilled when they opened their storefront and sent out the first announcements. As a young couple, they had a lot of energy and worked long hours getting the office and shop ready, buying supplies, arranging office furniture, developing a business plan, joining the local chamber and greeting their first customers.

Jay took over full management of the operation while Teddie kept her full time job as an account executive for a women's fashion company. But Teddie was there through all of the growing pains of the business too. She helped with billing and emptied the trash. She took messages for Jay at home in the evening when he was working late. The goal was to build the business to a level where she would quit her job and come to work with Jay. In the meantime her job provided a steady paycheck and other benefits such as insurance.

As the business grew, so did Jay and Teddie's family and responsibilities. With the first child, Teddie still managed to work full time because her mother and mother-in-law were willing babysitters. However, with the second baby, Teddie and Jay had to look at a more reasonable plan. It just wasn't possible for Teddie to work full time, care for two daughters, and help Jay in the business. Also Jay's Mom wasn't as healthy as she used to be and wasn't available for childcare anymore. Teddie's Mom was still helpful, but she and her husband had retired and wanted more free time. By the time their second daughter was born, the sign business was doing well enough to support the young family without Teddie's income. It would be tight, but the couple decided to take the plunge. Teddie quit her job to have the flexibility to care for her children and help out at the business.

For years Jay and Teddie ran the business this way. Although they shared equally in the ownership of the business and both worked long hours, Jay was really the manager and Teddie the home manager. Teddie would leave early to pick the kids up from school and get them to soccer practice and piano lessons. On some mornings she would come in late to the office because there was a dental appointment or a school field trip that she helped with. At the office, however, she was fully in charge of her department . . . everything that Jay didn't do, such as the bookkeeping, billing, purchasing and replanting the flowerbeds by the front door. Jay did the management, hiring and firing, marketing, customer service and the technical work. Amid all of this the children got more involved with the business, at first just watching dad build a sign, and later learning complex computer work.

If you are typical of most family business owners, you could probably plug your names into this scenario and change only a few details to make it your own story. Likewise, if you are typical of most small business owners, you do not have a succession plan. You have been so busy establishing and growing your business that you haven't looked that far ahead. You may not even have the confidence yet that your business will be around that long. Or you may decide to sell the business and build several other empires before you retire or die. When you were getting your business underway, it never occurred to you that you were building a legacy; you were just going after your dream.

If you are among the rare few who have considered succession planning, more than likely you and your spouse have discussed which child is best suited to be president or if management responsibilities should be shared by siblings. If you are in partnership with your brother, mother, sister-in-law, or some other family member, you probably have a legal and financial plan for how the partnership will transition should one or the other of you die or wish to be bought out. However, if the family business is a sole proprietorship such as Jay and Teddie have, and the husband is the founder and president, it's highly unlikely that you have considered your wife as a successor to the business leadership. Yet it is the wife who is most likely to be thrown into that position with the death of the founder where no succession plan has been established.

In 1984 McKinley conducted an interesting study in which she found that a widow was more than willing to take over management of the business upon her husband's death, especially if she had been working with her husband. But even among those widows not working in the business side-by-side with their husbands, there was a strong desire to take over the management. These widows reported that the business was very meaningful to them, that it was a part of their identity, that they had psychologically helped build the business. They did not want the business to pass out of their hands, even if they didn't know how to run it. Furthermore, most of the widows studied did not know how to manage their husband's business, because they had not been trained. Their function had been auxiliary.

They provided support such as Teddie has done for Jay. Therefore, these widows, untrained in the ins and outs of managing the family business, had to turn to their attorneys, CPAs and other advisors to educate themselves about the business. This is not sufficient training for the complexity of running a small business, as any business owner knows. But these particular women were determined and they learned as their husbands had done . . .by the seat of their pants.

This seat-of-the-pants training may have been sufficient for the founder, but it seems a waste to have the successor not benefit by her predecessor's lessons. Unless the business is a professional practice requiring college and certification that your wife could not readily get upon your death, preparing your wife to take over the business is a logical and practical step for most business owners. A side benefit is that once she is trained, the founder can turn his interests elsewhere, such as expansion or developing a second business entity. Growth of an empire is possible only when you have the flexibility and freedom to explore uncharted territory. If you are busy manning the helm, your growth will be limited to raising prices on product or adding a new line.

Preparing a wife for the presidency is no easy feat, however. It means acknowledging that the founder may die or wish to move onto something else. It means putting things into writing, such as compensation plans for your wife. It means letting go of control and allowing your wife to know all of the company secrets. It means that the marriage itself will be challenged. As the protégé grows in ability and leadership, the mentor may find himself eased out of power before he is ready. Can your marriage stand the strain of your wife being the boss, for example?

Making your wife your equal partner at work (provided she wants the job) and teaching her everything you know, will provide a solid succession plan. She will most likely be a devoted fan of yours and the business, and therefore a loyal and responsible guardian for the business. She will be a much better prepared widow than McKinley found in her study and less likely to lose the business. However, this also means redesigning the business today to accommodate two owners, two managers, two leaders. The consensus model of marriage that most Americans accept as the standard today will be brought into the business setting. Not only will husband and wife have to adjust to this change, but so will employees, customers and others used to a more hierarchical model. Be prepared to change the structure of management when your wife becomes your management partner. No longer can the founder fly by the seat of his pants. Although you may feel that your style is cramped when there are two of you to answer to, remember that having a well trained successor (and one who loves you) means that the business has a much more bright and stable future.

Dual - ing Entrepreneurs

Friday, September 04, 1998




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

When I returned to the office a few months ago I found a phone message from Dick Wilsdon indicating he wanted to talk with me about a recent column I had written. He was especially interested in the topic of competition among spouses who work together. Being somewhat of an expert on this topic, having researched the area for years, consulted with many entrepreneurial couples, and written not only countless Vancouver Business Journal articles, but recently published a book on the subject, I felt confident that I could answer Dick’s questions and give him a few pointers to boot! But with his first question I was stumped. "I was just wondering," he said, "if you knew anything about couples who operate competing businesses?"

Dick and Linda Wilsdon are such a couple, believe it or not. Dick owns Western Nugget Transportation and Linda owns All Americas. Both are transportation brokers and quite successful at it. Each has had the honor of being among the INC. 500, an annual award given by INC. Magazine to American companies who have distinguished themselves. The following is a run down on just how Linda and Dick do it.

There is an interesting story behind how this couple found themselves in competition. Certainly they didn’t plan this outcome. It was a natural progression of events. Entrepreneurs are like that. The successful ones allow nature to take it’s course and capitalize on it. Dick has always been an entrepreneur. He has owned several businesses, so it was a natural to move from being a trucker to being a transportation broker.

Linda on the other hand never thought of herself as an entrepreneur. Like so many women, entrepreneurship came as a result of helping out the family. In order to bring their son into the business, Linda started All Americas as a way to prepare their son for taking over Dick’s business someday. Mom and son were to work the business together. As it turned out, the son wasn’t interested after all, so Linda was left with the decision of letting the business go, joining forces with Dick and Western Nugget, or continuing on her own. With her husband’s encouragement and blessing, she took on the task of running All Americas on her own.

Although Linda had no business experience before starting All Americas, she took on the challenge and soon gave Dick a run for his money. While Dick was nominated to the prestigious INC. 500 in 1987, Linda was nominated just six years later because her business was booming. Linda talks about how scared she was to take over All Americas when her son left, but Dick had every confidence. He mentored her during those early years, but acknowledges that she has abilities that he lacks. He says, "This woman is the most fantastic people motivator I know. Watching her motivate people is like a symphony!"

Herein lies the key to the Wilsdon’s success as a competing dual-entrepreneurial couple. They have tremendous love and respect for each other. They consider each other best friends. Although they may disagree heartily about things, they make a point to work the arguments out. And they don't take things personally. When I asked Dick and Linda what advice they would give to other competing dual-entrepreneurial couples, they offered these three nuggets:

  • "Talk a lot."
  • "Be willing to give."
  • "Think of your spouse as a 60% partner ... 10% better than an equal partner."

Over the years the Wilsdons have demonstrated in their behavior that they really believe in this advice. They are early risers and in the morning over coffee the two of them discuss the business, their lives, the kids, etc. Because they enjoy each other’s company they do spend a lot of time together, so talking comes easily. They grocery shop and run errands together too, rather than allow efficiency to divide them up. And they love to travel, so they incorporate lots of play time together. Talking a lot doesn’t just mean discussing business. It’s a time to reconnect with your spouse/partner ... to let each other know that you love and respect the other person.

Being willing to give takes on another meaning for the Wilsdon’s too. Because Dick had already proven himself in business before Linda started her enterprise, he was in a position to mentor her.

He wasn’t really giving up anything by encouraging her to develop a competing business. His business is strong and profitable. Rather he views it as helping his wife be the best she can be. Dick loves having a strong, assertive, capable wife who keeps him on his toes. He admires her strengths and feels that he benefits from them too. After all if Western Nugget loses a bid to All Americas, he still reaps the financial rewards. And the friendly competition spurs his staff on to improve their performance.

The Wilsdon’s do have some rules about competing however. They never go after each other’s existing business. They only compete for new work. Everything is out in the open ... no secrets between them. Although they may enjoy rubbing it in once in awhile when one company has the edge over the other, they really enjoy helping each other win. In other words, I don’t really think they are in competition at all. Rather each has the goal of being the best they can be and encouraging that in their spouse.

The proof of all of this is right there at their company offices. Western Nugget and All Americas are side by side in a Hazel Dell office complex. Each business has it’s own legal identity and separate staff, but employees do cross over sometimes. Once the Wilsdon’s daughter worked for Dad and now she works for Mom. Interestingly Dick has a woman office manager and woman bookkeeper, while Linda has a man office manager and a man bookkeeper. They laugh and tell me that this is just a coincidence, but I wonder if it is just another way the Wilsdon’s keep things balanced.

The Wilsdon’s may be a unique couple in that they operate competing businesses, however, all entrepreneurial couples can benefit by the principles that they live by. It takes a lot of maturity to put your egos aside and encourage your partner’s talents, especially when they might show you up. It takes courage to accept criticisms from your spouse/partner and really hear these criticisms as helpful feedback from one who knows you well. It takes patience to listen and work through problems. Communicating regularly with your spouse/partner is often the last thing busy entrepreneurial couples do, but it is essential to a healthy business and a loving marriage.