PREPARE FOR FAMILY BUSINESS CONFLICT NOW

by Mitzi Perdue

“It wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark”

 

There never has been and never will be a family that can avoid all conflicts. Since conflicts are inevitable, prepare for them ahead of time. 

 

The most helpful preparation is, develop a solid culture of "putting the family first." This won’t come about automatically because there’s a built-in tug-of-war in families, a tug-of-war between individualism and community. 

 

On the individualism side, we are pulled towards wanting to be able to express ourselves and act on our own feelings. We want to feel autonomous and free, and we don’t want to feel repressed or smothered.

 

On the community side, we’re pulled towards being part of a close family where we have a ready-made source of comfort, support, understanding, security, and identity. The cost of this good feeling is we have to give up some of our individualism, including the need to be always right. Members of any family are likely to feel pulled in two directions. However, being part of a business family changes the balance. When you’re a member of a family business, there’s a lot more at stake than just the family.

 

A public quarrel can harm of even kill a business. When I was growing up as a member of the family that founded the Sheraton Hotels, I was told from infancy that a public quarrel could harm the family business. That led to a deeply culturally ingrained notion that public quarrels “are not something we do.” 

 

My siblings and I grew up with the phrase, repeated a thousand times, “We don’t wash our dirty linen in public.” We’d hear this over meals, or during holiday rituals, or when we’d hear stories about our grandparents and others who had gone before. 

 

We were made aware that with 20,000 employees and 25,000 stockholders, it would be WRONG to let quarrels escalate. We knew that a public family quarrel can tt  harmful to the brand; it can mean damage to the value of the stock.

 

We were also told that since Sheraton stock was publicly traded, a public family quarrel could cause Sheraton stock to plummet.  That would mean widows and orphans would be suffering because of our selfishness.

 

The mantra of, “We do not wash our dirty linen in public” was so firmly ingrained that while we might have been tempted to contemplate assassination, I don’t think any of us ever considered bringing in a lawyer or a member of the press. We did keep quarrels from escalating. 

 

And by the way, we did have issues. To take just one, in 1968, some of the family members wanted to take advantage of a tremendous offer that ITT had made to buy the Sheraton chain. It would mean enormous amounts of cash right now.

 

However, several of us including me didn’t want this to happen. Those who opposed it, and I was one, all had our reasons.

 

“It’s my identity!”

“It’s disrespectful to Father’s memory!”

“I don’t want the cash; I want to be a part of Sheraton!”

“An outside company will never care as much about the employees as we do!”

 

Imagine for a moment the feelings involved: your family is divided over the possibility of large amounts of immediate cash; a large part of your identity for your entire life is in danger of being ripped away; your parents’ legacy is being turned over to outsiders! It’s a great big bubbling stew of some of your strongest feelings. Emotions were at white-hot levels. 

 

We argued among ourselves, but none of us ever spoke to lawyers or the press. I don’t think anyone outside the family knew what we were feeling. 

 

In the end, we did sell Sheraton. To the rest of the world, we had a united front, and we were true to our deeply held values, that we never washed our dirty linen in public. 

 

I think at the end of this experience, we all felt proud that we had gotten through this and remained a close family. Once the decision was made, we closed ranks and nobody held a grudge.

 

We’re still a united family 50 years later. But this wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t developed a culture ahead of time that supported “family first” and “We don’t wash our dirty linen in public.”

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