The Raising of a Family Business

How one small realization radically influenced one CEO’s leadership style.

“Business is family” has a connotation of care and compassion. Both qualities have doubtless importance to a great workplace culture. Yes, a business is a family, but it’s a business family, not your actual family kind of family. Fail to see it this way and you’ll end up with counterintuitive results.

I’ll admit, for many years as a leader in a family business, I followed this ideal. One of the paths to success—I firmly believed—was to treat people unconditionally. Then I got hit square between the eyes. “What is the major difference between a family culture and a business family culture?” my executive coach, Raymond Gleason, asked. This stopped me right in my tracks. I was stumped. To me, family culture and business family culture were one in the same.

After an uncomfortable reflection, mining for an answer that never came, Raymond shared the difference: “The relationships with your business family are conditional. The relationships with your actual family are unconditional. With my abundance of heart, I realized I had mistakenly treated business relationships unconditionally, like family. In retrospect, had I ignored Raymond’s advice and continued down my unchecked path, our business today would promote a nice, friendly, caring culture with no chance for higher performance.

The job of a leader is to help create a high-performance culture, positioning the organization to successfully pursue its vision. Treat a business family unconditionally, and the emphasis on relationships commandeers the emphasis on performance. Performance falls to the back burner.

While this isn’t done consciously, it is destined to happen when a workplace culture treats team members unconditionally. The leaders morph into parental figures or a trusted sibling. Don’t forget, we hire people based on the condition they will perform. This is our primary hiring objective. The decision to hire should never be based on the condition of building a lifelong relationship. Save that for marriage—not a job candidate.

How do you know if you’ve allowed unconditional to take priority over conditional?

There are three major signs:

  1. find yourself in the habit of not confronting performance issues with a team member because you are worried about hurting his or her feelings.
  2. don’t have documented, observable, trackable success measurements for each position that reports to you.
  3. need to let someone go due to underperformance, but you neglect to do so because he or she is your friend, and you do not want to disrupt the relationship.

If you find yourself resonating with any of these, it’s time to embrace the discomfort and lead through it. Handling these situations with care and compassion will help position the culture toward the primary goal of high performance, with positive relationships a key, yet secondary, characteristic.

4 Maxims

When I transitioned my leadership with respect to the “conditional vs. unconditional” perspective, I followed four maxims:

  1. Be Up Front and Vulnerable. Teach people the principle of “conditional vs. unconditional.” Articulate your perspective on your business family and how it differs from your family. Share this first with your current team members, followed by your job candidates.
  2. Get More Objective. Create documentable, observable, and trackable success measurements for each position. Specificity drives accountability. If you do not have this in place, consider involving the person in each position to help create them. Objective conversations around performance are less personal.
  3. Embrace Reality. When you must part ways with someone who is a friend, accept: 1. The reality that it sucks, and 2. The relationship likely will be affected for a long time.
  4. The Heart Part. Your heart for people must continue to beat strong. It’s a necessity to really care for people if you want to lead them. Forget this and become leadership toast. Placing high emphasis on performance does not undervalue the time you invest in connecting with people on a heart level.

As a CEO who has put this perspective into practice, it’s amazing to experience the beauty of a high-performance culture. You will find your team accomplishes goals more frequently, and when they don’t, the performance spirit of the organization finds a way to improve without finger pointing. Unexpectedly, you’ll notice in the high-performance culture, people move closer with care and respect for one another more than in the culture that overemphasizes harmonious relationships. Hire and retain your team based on the condition people perform, and your business family just may bring you many of the joys of your actual family.

Ryan Wall is president and CEO of FHI. In 1991, Chuck Wall and his wife, Jayne Beth, pioneered the professional unloading industry with the creation of FHI. With a reliable and professionally trained staff of handlers, FHI quickly fulfilled Chuck’s vision by bringing new levels of productivity and transparency to carriers, vendors, and distribution centers. Today, FHI continues to grow while creating hundreds of jobs around the United States. After 25 years of transportation and distribution of grocery merchandise, Chuck passed the baton to his son, Ryan Wall. Prior to becoming president and CEO in 2014, Ryan held administrative, operational, HR, and leadership development duties. As CEO, he lives out a passion for serving one another to create memorable and measurable differences. Ryan places significant emphasis and energy towards leadership development that enables continuous improvement in associate & customer satisfaction. Their spirit of “finding a better way” continues to evolve. FHI is now an industry leader and remains committed to improving the industry and contributing resources to improve the flow of product to consumers.