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Surviving the holidays in a family business

family-900x600Students often ask me how they can relax and enjoy the holidays when they are seated across the table from their mother or father – who is also their boss. Or, how about getting along with cousin Jerry, who also happens to be gunning for the same marketing position they seek – the same cousin Jerry who consistently saunters into work one hour late or takes every Friday off.

Holidays can be a stressful time for being with family, even when you do not work together. But for those people who are both family members and co-workers, the stress is even higher – and the potential for land mines even greater.

Here are a few tips for surviving – and even enjoying – the holidays:

The holidays are a time for celebration.

The holidays are not a time to solve family conflict or deal with challenges in the family business. Avoid hot-button topics like work, politics or anything about which family members do not agree. Keep the family celebration sacred and keep business conversations back at the office. If a family member starts to bring up work or a sensitive subject, gently suggest that you two get together after the holidays to discuss.  Follow up and set a date when you are back in the office.

Celebrate what makes your family special. 

Tell the stories of your grandparents. Where did they come from? What are the memorable events in their lives?  What stories about their lives illustrate the values that hold you together as a family? Are there family stories that everyone enjoys retelling?

Try to see family members for who they are today.

Let go of past anger at cousin Laura, who cut your doll’s hair off and always bragged about her grades in school. Instead, try to get to know her as an adult. How does she spend her free time? Where did she go on her last vacation? Take a genuine interest in getting to know her.

Be active. 

Play a game. Get outside. Go for a hike or play tennis together. Take a holiday meal or gifts to a less fortunate family.

Laugh together.

Tell the story about the year grandma burned the turkey and you had to eat canned ham for Thanksgiving. Be silly – play Twister, charades or Hedbanz. If all else fails, page through a copy of Awkward Family Photos or Awkward Family Holiday Photos – or better yet, unearth some of your family’s own ’70s and ’80s photos.

Happy holidays from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Family Enterprise Center!

By Cooper Biersach (BA ’91, MBA/JD ’96), co-founder and director of the Family Enterprise Center

The Family Enterprise Center prepares next generation family business students for leadership and ownership in family firms.