Working for Yourself

Dennis Jaffe

It is so easy to fall into the trap of working for your family’s business. It is always there, available, and easy to start. And like a drug, it can lull you into danger and self-delusion. After a while, you can begin to feel empty, unexpressed and less than alive; yet, because of the perks, and your own fear of life outside, you can begin to feel trapped.

It is not bad or wrong to choose to work for your family. It is dangerous. It is best to be aware of yourself while you work for your family. Here are several of the ways you can respect and develop yourself while working for your family.

Learn before you earn.

School can be fun, but you should also take the opportunity to learn to do something. Consider the range of things that might be useful to your family, to take its business in new directions, or to just be helpful. The world is changing fast, and whatever business your family has, it will need new ideas, new skills and directions that you might learn when you are at school.

Do real things.

Get as far from the executive suite, which is really a branch of your living room. Learn how the business works, and take on some real responsibility. Run something.

Develop a track record.

Face it. People won’t be able to get past your name. You have to work hard to get them to see you. Find something that you can put your stamp on, and do it well. And by the way, make it your own work, don’t take credit for the work of others.

Get feedback.

The hardest thing to get from other people is the truth, especially about your work. If you cultivate people, especially the people who do the best work, and ask them to tell you how you are doing, off the record, you are at least likely to get unfiltered information that might be useful.

Find a mentor.

A mentor is not your boss, but someone who helps you grow and develop. He or she challenges you, tells the truth, and stimulates you. It can be a senior person in the business, though not usually a family member, and it can also be someone outside. Sometimes a board member or family friend can serve this role. This is a person whom you can bounce things off, and with whom you can talk candidly. A real resource.

Seek a variety of assignments.

You may be in the driver’s seat someday, so the more people, and the more you know about the business, the better off you will be. Move around in job assignments, and informally. If you have done well in one area, move on to another.

Attend to your development.

Many important things are happening, and when you have been working, you need to seek regular opportunities to learn more. You should especially seek workshops and learning opportunities where you are an active participant, not sitting in a workshop, but doing something with others. Experiential, active learning teaches you about leadership, your own limits and helps you stretch.

Take time away.

You have the luxury of not losing your job if you take some time to work away from the business. You should take some time, either before you work for the family, or during, to work in another business, to see what you can do, and to see what life is in another world. You have to spend some time away from home in order to see your own place clearly.

This article appeared in the Aspen Family Business Group’s Spring, 2001 Newsletter.