Family Business

In a family business, dealing with change can be complicated

July 22, 2012 

I have had a bad back for years. I did something to it years ago while playing tennis, and have been on a journey to get it fixed ever since. I have had massages and shots, seen the chiropractor, and am a down dog expert in yoga. Much has helped, but nothing has solved the problem. Until the day someone said I should get a really firm mattress. Voila, my back pain is gone, knock on wood. Now my knee hurts.

Change is inherently difficult for people to process. The human brain finds it easier to deal with the world when as much of it as possible is the same as we remembered it yesterday. Unfortunately, the world and the people in it, including you, are always changing. Thus we must learn to cope.

Change is extra hard in business. Part of making business effective is making it efficient and trying to consistently maintain that level of efficiency. However, as businesses are always striving to create new models and processes that are better than their competitors, change is always necessary. One of the benefits of the “Late-Adopter” is that they can implement the latest technology, leap-frogging the “Early-Adopter” companies. Moral: Be efficient today, but I may tell you to change everything tomorrow.

The ‘ripple effect’

Part of what makes change difficult is that people think they can either contain change, or ignore the ramifications of change. Stuart Scott, a Raleigh-based consultant who specializes in the human impact of change in businesses says that “companies develop and implement new and improved processes or technologies, but fail to recognize the ripple effect that change has on each of the individuals across the entire organization. This is where they go wrong.”

The “ripple effect” is even more prevalent with family businesses. Murray Bowen, founder of the Family Systems Theory concept, views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Thus, not only is a change in one element going to impact another one, but it could impact every other element. Exacerbating this dynamic is the typically poor communication among family members.

Thus, if a family is a system, and a business is a system, meshing the family and business together creates an extremely complex mega-system. But not only are two systems coming together, but each has a different raison d’être: One is predicated on unqualified love and support, and the other on bottom line financial results.

A graceful transition

The simplest example of change in the family business is the transitioning of leadership from the current to the next generation. Indeed, there is a sort of dance that must take place to gracefully transition the helm, such that the business keeps working on all cylinders and father and son, for example, both maintain their individual self-esteem and the positive relationship between them. This is certainly a big change. But have you considered the impact it can have on the wives of the father and son? Or the son’s siblings in and outside of the business? What about certain employees or other shareholders? Maybe you fixed the back but you messed up the knee. Your tennis game will still suffer.

In the spirit of change, so will this column. While slight, we think it will have a very positive impact on the readership, and the message and information it delivers. This change is the creation of an entity called Family Business Carolina. Its purpose is to provide a more dedicated focus on family businesses based in the Carolinas, and at its core will be the information and education revolving around this family business column.

In the future, we hope to provide more research and information that is particularly relevant to family businesses in Raleigh, Wake County, Eastern North Carolina, and the Carolinas as a whole. In support of this effort, a website is now available at

Henry Hutcheson is a nationally recognized family business speaker, author and consultant in Raleigh. He can be reached at

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