MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: Keep business in the family

Family life is fraught enough, without throwing a business into the mix. Marriott International's Deborah Marriott Harrison explains how to keep relations sweet in a family business.

by Deborah Marriott Harrison
Last Updated: 27 Apr 2016
Rupert Murdoch’s full takeover of BSkyB (a business in which his son, James, is non-executive chairman) has moved a step closer this week – proving that the family that works together, er, can get incredibly rich together.

It’s a situation Deborah Marriott, Marriott International’s senior vice president of government affairs, is familiar with. Having spent 27 years raising her family, five years ago she decided to work for her father's company - Marriott International. It could have been frenetic – but Marriott says working with her dad has been a great experience.

We asked her for her ten top tips on avoiding feuds in a family business…

1. Be Humble
Never take advantage of family connections

2. Be grateful
I was a full-time mum going into a big executive position. What an opportunity – I’ll always be grateful. Many of my friends who are ‘just mums’ are smart, capable women with no resumes who are wondering what to do with their time now that their children are grown. If you’ve been given a chance by your family, make sure you say thankyou.

3. Work harder than anyone else
Every one’s watching you – and some want you to fail.

4. Use your resources
Know who to contact and who to be friends with. Use subject matter experts to make you look good, and be appreciative. It’s ok to say that you don’t know something but will find out and get back to them.

5. Be at the table, literally
In some families, women don’t have the confidence to be assertive and give their ideas. In meetings, women tend to sit around the room and let the men be at the table. We need to be at the table.

6. Don’t be too competitive
Family comes first, no matter what. There’s no room for competition that can destroy the relationships. It’s also important to make key allies in the top leadership of the business, outside the family.

7. Prepare, prepare, prepare…
You don’t have to be the smartest, but you should be the most prepared. You will gain respect and be seen as the reliable one.

8. Have courage
Don’t be afraid to stand up for what is right, even if family members disagree. It is important to stand up for the company culture and long-standing principles. Always do what is right and have integrity.

9. Let your team shine
Family may be important, but make sure other members of the team get credit, too. The key to being a good leader is to develop your people and their talents. Have talented people around you and create opportunities for them to grow. Patrick Moynihan (one of the most influential Senators in the US Congress in the past 30 years) said, ‘I can do anything if I don’t care who gets the credit.’  

10. Communicate and listen
It might sound obvious, but being a good listener is a key to leadership and to learning where the opportunities and pitfalls lie. Families are often the worst communicators, so make sure you keep your relationships open, honest and professional. It is also important to be confidential. A family member knows a lot of insider info – so be aware of when to share and when to keep quiet.

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