Keeping it in the family

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Over half of us (55%) would like to work for an organisation that has a ‘family feel’ and is held together by loyalty and tradition, according to the CIPD Employee Outlook Survey 2015 this week, though only 26% would describe where they currently work for as having a ‘family feel’.

From the Ewings to the Mitchells (indeed, to the Kardashians to the Royal Family), I would argue family-run businesses aren’t represented as all that appealing in mainstream culture. The line between the personal and professional is frequently crossed (if it’s established at all), and petty rivalries, old scores and managerial favouritism are all recurring themes.

The media portrayal of the family-run business hasn’t shifted that much from King Lear – but is there a big distinction we should be making here between an organisation being run by a family and an organisation having ‘a family feel’?

The two don’t necessarily go together. Being a family-owned or operated business doesn’t guarantee a ‘family feel’ culture (consider Cho Hyun-ah, the Korea Air Lines Co. executive, daughter of the company chairman, and her ‘nut rage’ incident), though I have experienced businesses where the two do go very much hand-in-hand.

Where this does happen, old-fashioned words (and notions) like ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’ tend to crop up: those in charge often feel a huge debt to the founding family members who started the business (alive or dead!), and, being wired into a sense of duty, often have no problem extending that concept of duty to the wider ‘family’ of the business – its people.

Of course, a sense of duty and responsibility to your people isn’t the exclusive preserve of those who own their own businesses. At SMRS, we’ve undertaken numerous employer brand development projects for plcs where the consistent theme expressed by the people as their USP is its family feel (a challenge in itself when you’re trying to differentiate them!).

So, what are the cultural components that make for a truly family feel business?

Size does matter (but not as much as you might think)

We’ve worked with some pretty big employers who describe themselves as having a family feel (some with tens of thousands of people). The key seems to be having a distinctive organisational personality and clear value system (helped, very often, by having a leader universally seen to be an embodiment of this personality – and very often by having a polarised opposition to a direct competitor).

Being certain of who you are, unapologetic about it and clearly committed to staying that way can overcome the obstacle of scale.

It doesn’t matter how big the family grows, as long as you’re all clearly Ewings/Mitchells/Kardashians/Windsors and determined to stay that way.

People like to know where they are, and often loyalty is driven by a certain amount of predictability (which I guess is how, even though no one likes them, there can be uproar the year your mother decides not to offer soggy brussel sprouts for Christmas lunch).

Keep it flat

A non-hierarchical operation is definitely a big part of being a family feel organisation. The flatter the structure, the wider the doors are opened, and the more ‘human’ your leaders are seen to be, the more like a family you’ll feel.

What I think is really interesting with this family analogy is in fact how the role of leadership shifts within a family dynamic.

Mum and Dad might have gone and bought the big new smart TV, but it might be their teenager who actually takes the lead in setting it all up when they get it home. In our house, I always took the lead as in-house style director (quelle surprise!) – if I wasn’t sure about the new fabric my mother was looking at for her bedroom curtains, the purchase simply wouldn’t go ahead!

Happy families are, more often than not, democracies. People know who is best at what, they play to those strengths, but still give everyone a voice. The businesses described by their people as feeling like family do the same.

And don’t come knocking if you want to be rocking

“They didn’t last long. They just didn’t get us. They just weren’t ‘us’.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this kind of sentiment being expressed in a business self-described as having a family feel. ‘Tissue rejection’ is quite common with new talent, particularly senior talent, and particularly senior talent seen to want to ‘corporatise’ in some form or another.

Flat, free-flowing, ‘power-shift-agile’ family feel cultures don’t take kindly to anything (or anyone) seen as creating red tape – even when their future growth might depend on a little more structure and discipline. And they certainly don’t like new talent rocking the boat too much in the direction of a more corporate horizon.

This can be both a commercial and operational challenge, and an attraction and engagement issue too. That old chestnut of ‘managing expectations’ on all sides springs to mind. Family feel businesses operate with hearts and minds – new joiners beware: don’t even try to get the minds if you can’t get into the hearts first.

Two final thoughts on the family feel organisational culture.

The first – the nature of your operation has a big part to play. Retailers and manufacturers are far more likely, in my experience, to describe themselves as having a family feel (but I have known it in law firms too). Often this is rooted in a unity of purpose.

Though admittedly rather grating, this Pilgrim’s Cheese ad is a fine – and rare – example of a multi-functional, multi-site employer connected by the same end goal (customer delight, of course!).

Lastly, a word of caution to those seeking to work somewhere with a family feel (again, this is a story I’ve heard repeated time and again): disloyalty to the ‘family’ carries a heavy price. For all that camaraderie, agility, sense of belonging, recognition, passion and fun that they offer, when you decide it’s time to move on, the response can be harsh.

As someone put it to me, “Even though I wasn’t going to a competitor and there wasn’t a logical next step role for me to go into, the minute I resigned it was very much ‘You’re dead to us’. That really hurt.”

Of course, it’s a bit short sighted too – enlightened employers know great talent should always feel it could bounce back into the fold. But then, that’s the thing about families – each is unique, and, ultimately, each makes up its own rules.

This blog first appeared on smrs.co.uk 4th June 2015

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