I recently received an email from a colleague asking me if I’d come across a seminal article on the challenges of including spouses in a family business.

I replied that I didn’t know of such an article (although I’m sure that some exist out there), and thanked him for the blog idea.

This is a subject that families ask about often, and yet I haven’t really written much about it over the years.

Let’s change that now, fully recognizing that a 750-word blog post will never qualify as “seminal”, and that’s OK too.

I hope the thoughts I share here are useful nonetheless.

It’s Less About “Yes or No”and More About “How and When”

Let’s settle a couple of matters right off the bat: There is no correct answer that applies to all families and businesses, so it’s rarely a question that has a yes or no answer and more about how and when we should consider including them.

This may take a while to sink in for some because an attitude of “it’s none of their business” may exist and be difficult to overcome. (Thanks to my wife for that perspective!)

When we think about the business itself, the basic starting point is that anyone who marries into the family that owns the business begins as an outsider.

As they marry into the family, do they also marry into the family’s business? 

That’s a loaded question, of course, and it does not have a “one-size-fits-all” answer, as noted.

If a Rule Applies to One, It Applies to All

To me, there’s an obvious place to start, and that’s to say that if and when a family begins to create their own rules on how to answer this, whatever rule is made must apply equally to everyone.

So if I am going to insist that my wife be allowed to attend a certain meeting about family stuff as it relates to the business, then I cannot tell my sister that her husband isn’t invited.

Guidelines or rules need to be made in logical ways that are clear and simple to determine so that even a child can be brought in to impartially determine if someone is eligible or not.

Not One-Time Decision; Inclusion vs. Exclusion

The next key point is to admit that whatever decision is made about involving in-laws absolutely needs to be subject to continued evaluation and review.

Rewind the clock or calendar, when none of the rising generations had spouses, and there’s your baseline, i.e. there are no outsiders involved because they don’t exist yet.

Fast forward a few decades, to where they do exist, and also have their own offspring who are involved, either as employees and/or owners, and now it’s hard to maintain that hard and fast rule that the married-in people have no place.

At some point, during the life stage of the family, the business, and whatever attempt is being made to establish family governance, it becomes important to consider how including these people makes more sense than excluding them.

Human Capital and an Abundance Mentality

Let’s now look at a couple of other ideas, one of which I talk about often, and a newish one.

The people in a family can (and should) be viewed in terms of their human capital, i.e. they each bring something to the family, and the family should rightfully be concerned with each person and how the family can support their ability to flourish as a human.

And if a family is fortunate enough to own and manage a successful enterprise, then finding ways to spread those benefits to all family members can hopefully also happen, for the benefit of the entire family, including those who marry into the family (and presumably add more family members through procreation).

An abundance mentality is helpful here.

Back to Evolution and Emergence

The decisions around including people need to constantly be revisited over the years, decades, and generations of the family’s life cycle.

And because it’s difficult to undo something that has been done, families should proceed slowly, because like adding salt to your soup or sugar to your coffee, once it’s in there, it’s hard to get it out.

Think back to last week’s post, On Evolution, Emergence, and Rebirth, and how we need to let things emerge, and then consider if and how they deserve a place in what is evolving, as your family governance takes shape.

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