Business foundersHow to keep the family business separate from a family holiday

Key things to know

  • If you’re part of a family business, family office or family foundation, it can be difficult not to talk “business” during holiday gatherings.

  • One way to keep work and family separate is to carve out a specific place and time to discuss any enterprise-related issues that need to be addressed.

  • Be prepared to redirect conversations as necessary, focusing instead on discussing joyful topics instead, such as your family’s history, legacy or philanthropical mission.

Many family enterprises face a common fourth-quarter challenge: keeping work talk out of family holiday celebrations.

As the holidays approach, many people experience mixed emotions, from excitement to anticipation to apprehension to dread. For those who also have a family business, there can be concern that business conversations will take over family time.

It’s not easy to create lasting memories, unplug from daily stresses, and be present with loved ones when conversations shift to hiring concerns, distribution issues or new regulations. In addition, there’s always a chance work-related conflict will creep in.

However, there are ways to keep shop talk and negativity from spilling over into family holiday festivities. Here are some tips on how to connect with family and disconnect from family business during holidays.

1. Consider who’s in the room

Politics and religion have long been on the “topics to avoid” list for holiday gatherings, but family enterprise issues should be added to that list.

“We’ve seen some challenges when someone brings up a topic at a holiday dinner that might be either controversial or that they're having a hard time working through,” says Tom Thiegs, senior leadership and legacy consultant for Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank. “It can derail the positive environment of a family gathering.”

Talking about your family business matters could also be unproductive, since family members typically have diverse roles and different concerns.

In addition, discussions can create an “us and them” dynamic that makes valued family members who aren’t involved with the enterprise feel uncomfortable or excluded. “When everyone’s at the table, it can feel a bit alienating if you are not a member of that ‘in’ group,” Thiegs says.

2. Create a formal space for family business discussions

Your family may want to create and communicate a standard that business concerns are off limits during the entire family holiday time you’re together.

On the other hand, you and your relatives may see practical benefits to discussing business matters with so many decision makers under one roof. Or, there may be news that needs to be shared with members of the broader family in person.

Having a space and time already set aside for family business talk can serve as a handy offramp for conversations you’d like to cut short.

Carving out space for a family business meeting can help create a bright line between work and family fun. Choose a time and place that works well for multiple relatives but doesn’t overlap with the larger family celebration. Some families opt to meet on the Friday after Thanksgiving, for example, or sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

“People will know that the important discussions that need to happen can still happen,” Thiegs says.

Invite all participants to add agenda items using your family business’ shared document system. “You want to make sure that whoever you're talking to about business has a chance to prepare for it,” says Thiegs.

3. Be ready with phrases to redirect a conversation

Even if you set rules ahead of time about not discussing family business matters over turkey and pie, some members may forget or choose to ignore them. Instead of quickly shutting down these discussions, choose to honor your relative’s desire to contribute.

Thiegs suggests using a phrase like, “That is something that deserves a lot of our attention, and in this environment, we've got our attention on multiple things.” Then, suggest bringing up the issue at a future meeting.

Having a space and time already set aside for family business talk can serve as a handy offramp for conversations you’d like to cut short. “You can say something like, ‘That's really important for us to discuss. I'm excited that we get to talk about it tomorrow at our meeting,’” Thiegs adds.

You also have an out if not all stakeholders are in the room, like non-family members who sit on the board of your family foundation. You can use their absence as a reasonable excuse for pushing the conversation to another time.

4. Bring joy into the gathering

Aim for holiday conversation starters that are going to further the experience of family connectedness and harmony during a family holiday celebration, rather than detract from it.

So, if politics, religion and the family business are off the table, what can you talk about? Thiegs says rich conversations to have at the holidays can revolve around your family’s history and positive legacy. “You can tap into, ‘What are the miraculous connections that happened in the past that have gotten us here? Who are we, and why do we exist? What do we want to be about and remembered for?’” he says.

5. Remember that it’s a goal worth pursuing

Focusing on the good and establishing healthy family business boundaries can help create the special magic of a shared meal and bring out the best in a family holiday. It takes effort, but the returns can be spectacular.

Learn how Ascent Private Capital Management works with and supports family business founders and owners.

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