Keeping it in the family

Vanessa Crawley leaves SA Law at the end of the 2017 to join her family’s business. As she embarks on this new adventure, Vanessa talks about her decision and shares some pearls of wisdom from her years advising a range of family-owned businesses.

I’ve been lucky to work with some fantastic SMEs, family owned businesses and entrepreneurs over the years, and have been inspired by their passion, drive and tenacity. In helping to steer them towards a stronger commercial position, I also learnt a great deal about what it takes to succeed with your own venture. So, if you are currently in the same position as me – either joining your family business or starting one – here are some of the most important ingredients for success.

Know the business from the floorboards up

If you’re joining a family business, you need to get to grips with it. You may only be fulfilling one role, but a business of this style demands a much deeper understanding than you might ordinarily need within another organisation. You may have heard family members chatting about the business over the dinner table, this doesn’t mean you necessarily know everything there is to know about it. Because of your connection to the family, it is often assumed that you DO know all there is to know about the business before you even start. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, no matter how trivial they sound in your head. I’m planning an intensive induction for myself over the initial months to make sure I understand how everything works and connects. The aim is to get into the rhythm of the organisation so you can make a positive impact as soon as possible.

Think about where you can add value

Everybody comes to an organisation with a unique skillset and experience, so make sure you consciously consider how you can use it to the business’s advantage. As well as needing to understand the business, you also need to understand yourself and exactly what you can bring to the party. Compare what you can offer to what the business needs. For example, being a legal adviser has given me a breadth of commercial experience, and I’ll be thinking about how this can be best applied as I learn more over the coming months.

Clarify expectations

From the outset it is always good to establish what is expected of everyone. As a lawyer, I’ve seen the financial and emotional cost when family members working within an organisation fail to meet expectations that they were never aware of in the first place. This can include areas such as the level of commitment expected, hours worked, remuneration and long-term aspirations. Establish honest expectations at the outset, and revisit them at relevant points in the future.

Keep building your business network

With so much to do, you can easily become isolated within a family business, so I’m making a point of continuing to build my business network proactively. I believe that success comes through other people, whether it’s bringing new expertise, or simply drawing and bouncing ideas off people from a broad spectrum of experience. Surrounding yourself with a diverse business circle also gives you the chance to learn lessons from other professions, industries and sectors, which can help you solve challenges and identify opportunities. Also consider a mentor. Mentors can be a great sounding board and source of honest feedback that you might not get from within your family business.

And finally. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint

Working within a family business is a long term commitment. It may have been working successfully for generations before you joined. Assess whether ideas you are bringing to the table are a priority, a quick win, a lengthy-project, or something that needs to be scheduled for further down the road. You need to be practical about what can be achieved; what is your vision for the short, medium and long-term.

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