I recently counseled a father (let’s call him Mike) who had built a successful small business over a period of several years. He hired his unemployed son, (let’s call him Jerry) because of the strained economy and made him a manager. Recently Mike decided to retire. Sometime after retiring, Mike discovered that the business was suffering and beginning to fail. He considered coming out of retirement to save the business. Instead, he solicited an outside, objective opinion and asked for help in developing a solution to navigate the inherent conflicts of a professional relationship that is also personal.

Instead of just being angry about requests for additional financial support from Jerry, Mike began to look at where he could be responsible for the situation. Mike concluded that he had given too much by turning his business over to Jerry without establishing clear expected results, assessing Jerry’s current strengths, skills and experience, identifying areas for development and the necessary training to address those areas, and agreeing on expectations and methods for accountability about the businesses’ performance. Mike admitted that after stepping back and assessing Jerry’s fit for managing the business, that he probably would not have hired – or retained - Jerry for that that position if Jerry weren’t his son. Mike expected Jerry to “step up” and “fill his shoes” once Mike had retired, but Mike had not done an adequate job to ensure that Jerry was equipped to be successful.

This experience can teach us all something about ensuring that we have established clear boundaries when balancing a personal and professional relationship. When doing so, it’s helpful to identify our personal and professional goals.

Mike’s personal goal was to provide his son an opportunity to earn a good living and continue to have the lifestyle that he’d become accustomed to in their family. However, Mike was often paying Jerry for work that Mike continued to do himself while Mike was still there instead of developing Jerry to take over the responsibility – or acknowledging that someone else altogether should be doing the work. Mike also liked having Jerry around and spending time with his son while he was still working.

To help establish Mike’s professional goals, we approached the working relationship between father and son in three areas: thinking, feeling, and action.

THINKING: Mike admitted that as a father he tended to ignore facts and focus more on Jerry’s potential. He had coached Jerry through sports and found that with practice Jerry could accomplish tasks that were initially difficult. Mike considered that perhaps he was still doing this with the business assignments instead of looking at the facts about Jerry’s performance and results.

FEELING: Mike still wants to give to Jerry and he liked having Jerry nearby because he loved him. In many ways, Mike still viewed Jerry as the little boy that he coached instead of the grown man who was not functioning on the job. It made Mike feel sad to see Jerry struggle and have thoughts about whether he should fire Jerry. Mike was torn between a Dad who had not succeeded and a business owner considering managerial changes to keep his business thriving.

ACTION: Mike decided to stay in retirement and assign a more experienced staff person to manage the company instead of Jerry. Jerry now reports to this new manager who is developing a plan to assess Jerry’s strengths, identify areas for growth and development, provide additional training where necessary, set clear expectations for specific tasks and learning and agree on methods to return and report the status of Jerry’s progress. After an agreed upon timeframe and evaluation of Jerry’s performance and results, the new manager will make a decision about Jerry’s position in the company.

You may be aware of similar situations in your own practice where you or someone else has to make tough decisions about a family member, or even a very close friend, and you’re torn between your personal commitment to that individual and the professional realities that need to be confronted. If you have personal connections in your business, consider asking yourself the following questions to be confident in your decisions and direction for that individual, including:

  • How might you be thinking differently about this individual because of your personal connection?
  • Are your personal feelings causing you to make professional decisions that you would not make about another individual with whom you didn’t have a personal relationship?
  • What actions can you take to correct this before it affects your family member or friend, your relationship, the bottom line, clients or staff morale?

Remember that sometimes in our desire to balance a personal and professional relationship, we end up giving too much when someone may not be ready for the position or have the adequate skills or experience. The result is that providing a title or assigning responsibility is not enough. We have to separate our personal relationship from the performance expectations, conduct an honest assessment and create a plan to help the individual develop the skills or make necessary changes – for the success of the business, the individual and our relationship.

Let me know if you have faced similar situations and how you have addressed them. We’d love to learn from what you have to share.

With Warm Regards,