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Edition 142 – Black and White vs. Grey

Family business quite often has an interesting dynamic at play when it comes to spouses working with each other.

Sometimes, it is the way they talk to each other, something I addressed in Growth Edition 24, The Language of Family Business.

Other times, which is the topic of discussion today, it is the approach that each has in the business. Let me point to a real life example.

One family business I work closely with has a husband and wife team that work together. The husband is the technical spouse and the managing director. His wife is the support spouse and manages all aspects of finance and administration (if you’re wanting to know about Technical and Support Spouse roles, refer to Growth Edition 88 – Identity Crisis).

The best way to describe how the wife in this relationship works is that she is very Black and White. Whether it is hounding people for money, chasing staff for paperwork, or following up suppliers, she is relentless in the way she deals with each of them. For her, it’s a task to be completed and she is being efficient with her time. In terms of prisoners, not many are taken.

The husband in this partnership is different. He’s out there making sure his team complete the job for the client. He knocks on doors and continues to build relationships. In essence, he has his eye on the next project or opportunity whilst he’s still working on the current one.

He’s more Grey in his outlook. Sure, the client might be a little late for payment, but history tells him they usually pay. Yes, some staff might be lax with their paperwork, but they’ve been busy on site and had a big day working in the sun in high temperatures. They may just need a breather from being hounded for receipts or timesheets.

The problem between this dynamic is that Black and White, whilst it is very efficient, could well lose sight of the longer goal. In family business, you need to look out for the shades of Grey. Sometimes, you need to pick your time when you chase for money. Black and White may be super efficient at collecting, but relentless debt collection might come across as abrupt right at the time Grey is trying to get more work from the client.

The best way to deal with this dynamic is to follow this five point plan:

  1. Communicate with each other about what is going on in the business – don’t silo your operations away from each other.
  2. Set rules – whether it’s for chasing money or following up staff paperwork, make sure you agree on the approach the whole family business adopts.
  3. Be prepared to bend if extreme cases are at play. Firing rockets at employees on site in the middle of summer that are dehydrated may be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
  4. Be courteous in your dealings with everyone. If you’re debt collecting, you’re still selling even though you are chasing for money.
  5. Take a moment to understand the individual. If the client is slow paying, why not phone them rather than email? If it’s a supplier that’s late on a delivery, give them a call rather than hide behind an angry message. That small courtesy might help you better understand what’s happening with the other party and why what is happening is happening that way.

This Week’s Tip

“As spouses working together in family business, you need to make time at least weekly to bounce things off each other in work hours.  If you leave the discussion until after hours, you’re allowing your family business to take over your life.”