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Edition 88 – Identity Crisis

One of the biggest factors contributing to the success of family businesses can be attributed to the role of the spouse. It is also one of the most underrated and under rewarded roles for both its impact and effectiveness.

In most family businesses that I work with, the spouse plays an active role in the business. Be it in the area of finance, administration or in operating a key division, the “support” spouse is as important to the function of the family business as the “technical” spouse in the business – the one with the skill set that lead to the establishment of the business in the first place.

A good many of these spouses join the family business out of no reason other than love and commitment. That leads to their implicit trust in their spouse to run with the idea and create a new future for their family. Yet, the “technical” spouse cannot do it without the backup of the “support” spouse, who sees things they don’t and can get away with some brutal appraisals of performance, personality or capability.

This year, I’ve worked very closely with a family business where a family has moved from 50% ownership of the business to 100%. The “technical” spouse has been employed in the business since prior to becoming an owner. His spouse has not. Now the deal is complete, the cheque signed and the former owners are reviewing holiday brochures, the “support” spouse has stepped into a significant role in the business.

In this business, the “technical” spouse could not do without the contribution made by his wife throughout the transition period. She brings a different perspective, a calm head and a professional slant all to an industry that she has had to “fast track” her learning about. All out of love and commitment to her husband.

However, this contribution will not be long term. You see, the “support” spouse in this role is an extremely well qualified, capable and respected professional in her own domain, far removed from the industry in which her husband operates, and their family wealth now depends. She has spent almost two decades building her career and wants to continue pursuing it. Her husband, the “technical” spouse, embraces her desire to return to her chosen career once the first twelve months of 100% business ownership settles down.

Without this sunset in their agreement, she would endure an identity crisis at some stage. “What could have been?” “How far could I have taken myself in my career?” “What unfinished business would there be?” These are the questions I assume have passed through her mind even prior to the increase in their family’s shareholding in the business.

For the “technical” spouses in a family business, we need to ask the questions of our “support” spouse as to:

  1. What do they truly want out of the business in terms of return, lifestyle and overall satisfaction?
  2. What personal goals can the business help them to achieve?
  3. Do they really want to be as involved in the business as they are right now?
  4. How can the “technical” spouse support them in their endeavours so that their life is as fulfilling to them as some “technical” spouses receive fulfilment from the business itself?
  5. What entrepreneurial desires have they harboured themselves and how can the “technical” spouse support them in pursuing such interests.

This Week’s Tip

If you are the “technical” spouse, when was the last time you asked your spouse whether they are doing what they want, when they want, with whom they want,  every single day? The answer may surprise you