This is a guest post by Gitanjali Murthy.
Nearly two-thirds of workers across America are employed by family-owned businesses, which shows how far-reaching those entities can be. Despite this fact, negative reputations persist about the challenges of being employed at a company founded and run by family members — especially when you’re not a relative.
What are the biggest warnings naysayers offer about accepting a position at a family business? That you’ll be knee-deep in intricate family dynamics, politics, and drama. That your contributions will always play second fiddle to those of the nearest niece or nephew. That your new ideas will be ignored as the family business continues to do what it has always done.
Contrary to popular belief, not all family businesses operate in a top-down, backroom scenario reminiscent of “The Godfather.” It is tough to distinguish many family-owned organizations as radically different from other businesses.
I speak from my experience working for a family-owned business, which has been positive. I’ve developed strong relationships with co-workers, felt supported personally and professionally, been recognized for adding value, and has numerous opportunities to expand my skills.
I don’t work for a project-churning company where everyone is hounded to check off endless to-do lists. We have the opportunity to wear many hats and are encouraged to challenge leadership with new ideas. Working at a family business means being able to take ownership and execute effectively.
Being at a company with a relatively flat hierarchy, I have been able to work on everything from product innovation and digital marketing to analytics and forecasting. Along the way, my teammates coached and mentored me. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed that level of flexibility, compassion, or camaraderie at a place that wasn’t all about treating everyone equally and celebrating each person’s unique abilities.
Of course, you should keep a few things in mind before accepting a position at a family-owned business:
1. Play detective.
Scour the internet for employee reviews on any company you’re considering (family business or not). See what current and former employees say about the business so you can determine what kind of environment you’re getting into. If it looks like the company hasn’t adapted with the times — and isn’t open to change — it is probably not a good fit if you’re someone who is looking to learn new skills while making yourself more efficient and valuable.
You might also want to browse LinkedIn to check whether everyone on the executive team is a family member. If you want to work your way up to a C-suite role, it might be challenging at a corporation that seems to bar nonfamily members from climbing too high in the organization.
2. Prepare to be scrappy.
At a family business, you’ll probably feel like you’re working at a startup — even if the company has been around for generations. You’ll build from scratch and engage in grassroots efforts. If that excites you, every day will be filled with opportunities.
This isn’t to suggest that you need to capitulate to working with stone knives and bearskins. Ensure the company invests in employee training and development, is open to chasing the best ideas, and isn’t sitting back and expecting perfection. Be willing to get in the mud, dirty your hands, and work with what comes up — but not at the expense of your learning and growth.
3. Learn about the team.
If you’re joining a smaller family-owned business, you’re going to work shoulder to shoulder with and depend upon colleagues. Do your best to find out all you can about the workplace culture.
Does leadership have an appetite for risk? Awesome! Do employees fear making mistakes and withhold ideas? Move on to the next option. Does the leadership team help everyone move forward with tough decisions? Fabulous! Choose to work with people who want to grow and who motivate you to grow.
4. Check whether longtime employees have shifted positions.
You’ll no doubt hear stories about legacy workers who’ve been with the family business for a long time. Ask how they started and whether they moved around during their tenure. You want to garner how the company identified and used their talents.
For instance, perhaps an employee who started in customer service moved into marketing or sales and later became a supervisor or director. Those signs would indicate not only that the employee is good but also that the organization rewarded and fostered the worker’s growth over time.
While it can be discouraging to hear some of the myths of working at a family business, the reality is much more positive. Every day is like Thanksgiving dinner with your family. Some days, you get along very well with your family, and everyone has a jolly time; other days, that’s simply not the situation. However, dinner is always served and is delicious — the job gets done no matter what. If you want to learn the ins and outs of running a business, this is the place to be!
About the guest post author:
Gitanjali (Git) Murthy specializes in matters involving brand management, product innovation, sales, and marketing analytics. She leads the retail division for CLR Brands. Before Jelmar, Git worked at Northwestern University’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship as a business analyst and Deloitte as a consultant. Git holds a master’s degree in engineering management from Northwestern University.