It Wasn’t Raining When Noah Built the Ark! Preparing for Family Business conflicts – By Mitzi Perdue
There never has been and never will be a family that can avoid all conflicts. And since conflicts are inevitable, it’s always best to prepare for them ahead of time.
The most helpful preparation is to develop a solid culture of “putting the family first.” However, this won’t happen automatically, because there’s a built-in tug-of-war in families— a tug-of-war between individualism and community.
On the individualism side, we are pulled towards wanting to be able to express ourselves and act on our own feelings. We want to feel autonomous and free, not repressed or smothered.
On the community side, we’re pulled towards being part of a close family where we have a ready-made source of comfort, support, understanding, security, and identity. The cost of all these benefits is relinquishing some of our individualism, including the need to always be right.
Members of any family are likely to feel pulled in these two directions. However, being part of a business family changes the balance, because there’s a lot more at stake than just the family or its individual members.
A public quarrel can harm or even kill a business. When I was growing up as a member of the family that founded the Sheraton Hotels, I was told from infancy that public quarrels “are not something we do.” My siblings and I grew up with the phrase, repeated a thousand times, “We don’t wash our dirty linen in public.” We have head this over a meal, or during holiday rituals, or when we’d heard stories about our grandparents and others who had gone before.
We were made aware that with 20,000 employees and 25,000 stockholders, it would be not just unwise, but wrong to let quarrels escalate. We knew that a public family quarrel can make you vulnerable to competitors, demoralize the employees, harm the brand, and damage the value of the stock.
The mantra of, “We do not wash our dirty linen in public” was so firmly ingrained that while we might have contemplated assassination, I don’t think any of us ever considered bringing in a lawyer or a member of the press. We did everything we could to keep quarrels from blowing out of proportion – and we succeeded.
But that’s not to say we didn’t have issues. To take just one, in 1968, some of the family members wanted to take advantage of a tremendous offer that ITT had made to buy the Sheraton chain. It would have meant enormous amounts of cash immediately.
However, several of us, including me, didn’t want this to happen. We all had our reasons: “It’s my identity!” “It’s disrespectful to father’s memory!” “I don’t want the cash; I want to be a part of Sheraton!” “An outside company will never care as much about the employees as we do!”
Emotions were at white-hot levels. We were divided over the possibility of large amounts of immediate cash; a large part of our identity for our entire life was in danger of being ripped away; and our parents’ legacy was being turned over to outsiders. It was a great big bubbling stew of some of the strongest feelings you can imagine.
We argued among ourselves – and it wasn’t always pretty! – but none of us ever spoke to lawyers or the press. I don’t think anyone outside the family knew what we were feeling at all.
In the end, we decided to sell Sheraton. To the rest of the world, however, we had presented a united front. And, most importantly, we were true to our deeply held values: We never washed our dirty linen in public.
At the end of this experience, we all felt proud that we had gotten through this and remained a close family. Once the decision was made, we closed ranks, and nobody held a grudge. And 50 years later, we’re still a united family. But that wouldn’t be true if we hadn’t done the hard work of developing a culture ahead of time that supported “family first.”
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Mitzi Perdue is the author of How to Make Your Family Business Last. She is also a professional speaker, author, and businesswoman. She is the widow of Frank Perdue and daughter of Ernest Henderson, co-founder of the Sheraton Hotel Chain. She can be reached at www.MitziPerdue.com.
We did everything we could to keep quarrels from blowing out of proportion – and we succeeded.
A public quarrel can harm or even kill a business. My siblings and I grew up with the phrase, repeated a thousand times, “We don’t wash our dirty linen in public”