Next Gens: Are you "right" for the family business? Is the family business "right" for you?
Barb Dartt, DVM, MS

I love butter pecan ice cream. I’ve loved it ever since I was the age where I should have loved superman. I guess my fondness for butter-focused food started very early.


despite this long-time allegiance, I sometimes branch out when faced with a case full of fancy new ice cream flavors. last summer, I was a pretty faithful consumer of haymaker – a caramel-chocolate variety. it was amazing. and when I tried it this spring, it had lost its zing. I’m back to butter pecan. and wondering why I ever went away.


Now, part of the reason I know that I "belong" to butter pecan is because I’ve tried other varieties. (not superman, for the record.) checking out cookie dough, chocolate almond or even orange sherbet from time-to-time gives me context, or a comparison. really, how good is that butter pecan? you can’t truly know unless you’ve tried other options.


My butter pecan story is pretty simple. The consequences of choosing a "bad" ice cream flavor are short-lived and pretty low-risk – a few empty calories, really. The stakes are much higher when you choose to work in your family’s business.


The Stakes

When you’re employed in your family business, the role impacts (at least) three fundamental areas of your life.

• It’s how you make a living, ideally resulting in personal (and maybe your immediate family’s) financial security.

• It may have to do with your personal identity. Do you consider yourself a "farmer"? Or a dairyperson? Or a member of the "Smith" family business? Your job within an agricultural and/or long-term family business ideally results in a feeling of purpose and pride in your profession.

• It could contribute to strong family relationships. Ideally, the opportunity to work hard and successfully together deepens family relationships.


The stakes here are a little more impactful than your ice cream choice. When working in a family business goes well, it can provide a tremendous source of fulfillment. And when it isn’t a good fit, it can threaten every aspect of your adult life – your financial security, your identity as a professional and your family ties. For these long-term, life changing reasons, the choice to enter your family business as an employee should not be taken lightly.


Your Choice

Unfortunately, I have observed many next gens don’t make a conscious choice to work in the business – it’s something they "fall" into (there’s enough work and they’re comfortable there…so they stay) or something they’re "sucked" into (the senior generation makes it clear the business requires their work…so even though they have outside interests, they stay).


I have talked to many successful next gen family business leaders who have made a significant impact on the performance of their family businesses. Those who never worked outside the business suffer a crisis of confidence sometime in their 40s – really at the peak of their professional lives. They wonder…am I here because I belong? Or because I couldn’t have cut it anywhere else? Even successful family employees can feel the pressure of making the right life choices.


Unfortunately, I’ve also talked to many next gen family business employees who are unhappy and unfulfilled. They feel loyal – and don’t know how to reconcile caring about their family and leaving their employment in the family business. They feel stuck – and don’t know how they can still contribute to the industry and legacy they love while enduring family relationships that are at best constantly stressful and at worst, downright damaging.


The Resolution

At the risk of going back to the simplicity of the ice cream example, the solution actually IS pretty straightforward: before you make the choice to work inside your family business, work outside your family’s business. Full-time. For at least two years.


Here’s the logic:

1. Having context helps in making good choices.

• If you’ve never had anything but butter pecan, how do you know that butter pecan is the best flavor?

• If you’ve never had a boss besides Dad or Uncle or Grandma, how do you grow and learn about different work styles? If you’ve never worked at another business or industry, how do you know that this one is the right one for you? Even if the outside work does nothing more than cement your belief that your family’s industry is the one for you, imagine the comfort and confidence you’ll have in your career choice.


2. Today’s next gens (ages 18-30) will work for 45 to 60 years. Spending 2-4 years working elsewhere means you’re spending 3-9 percent of your career somewhere besides the family business. It’s not much time, but at the beginning of your career, it can be rich and very meaningful in experience and long-term direction.


3. Research supports it.

• Dr. Stephen Miller researched the factors that influence the development of next generation leadership talent.1

He found having appropriate levels of responsibility and decision-making authority helps next gens gain early leadership experience. And experiencing the responsibility and decision-making authority outside the family business was positively (and significantly) associated with next gens being successful leaders when they returned to their family businesses.

• Working outside the business in a meaningful role (not just flipping burgers) builds confidence and skills that a next gen can bring back and apply to their family business.


Senior gen folks…this part of the article is for you. If you include business continuation and family legacy among your goals, require your next gens to work outside the family business. Full time. For at least two years. I know it can be hard to push some next gens out of the nest – but it’s critical to achieving those goals.


Next gens…be deliberate in your choice to join the family business as an employee. Don’t "fall" in or allow yourself to be "sucked" in. Challenge yourself to experience another boss, organization or industry, as well as to gain specialized skills and experiences before you make a choice. Try some other ice cream flavors before you decide that you belong to butter pecan!


1. Next-generation leadership development in family businesses: the critical roles of shared vision and family climate. Stephen P Miller. Front Psychol. 2014; 5: 1335. Accessible online at




Barb is a consultant with the Family Business Consulting Group, working with families and management teams to help them keep their business healthy and the people happy. Barb can be reached at 269-382-0539 or


The opinions stated herein are not necessarily those of GreenStone Farm Credit Services.

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