Secrets of a harmonious family business

ONE MINUTE BRIEFING: A little reflection goes a long way, says former haggis magnate Jo Macsween.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 19 Dec 2018

Fictional portrayals of family businesses are hardly flattering: from the Ewings of Dallas to the Gettys of All The Money In The World, they are characterised by backstabbing, bickering and feuds.

The reality may not be quite as cinematic, but family firms do present a complication that others do not: "it’s only business" doesn’t really cut it when your colleagues and subordinates are also your relatives.

Jo Macsween, former MD of family haggis business Macsween, explains how separating the professional from the personal is essential for a functional family firm, and points to a surprising tool to ease the inevitable tensions.  


"There are three hats you wear in a family business. You have personal relationships, business relationships and finally governance or ownership relationships. You need to know which hat you’re wearing for any given conversation – it’s not a great idea to start discussing family dynamics in the middle of a board meeting, or strategic planning at the dinner table. A lot of family businesses aren’t even aware they’re doing it.

"We’ve invested a lot in education and communication tools, using a framework adapted from Stephen Covey [author of 7 Habits of Highly Successful People]. We also had our personality profiles done professionally, so we knew what our communication style was, how we might come across and how our style works with its opposite type.

"My father [John Macsween] was highly sceptical, as it was a significant investment, but when he read everyone’s report he said ‘my goodness, I actually understand your mother now’. He’d married his opposite type and this helped him see why they got into arguments and how to avoid them in future.  

"When we had to start talking about future roles and inheritance and money and debt – tricky subjects that sit around succession – those conversations were a lot less emotional but just as empathetic."

For more information

For tips on overcoming common family business problems including succession and nepotism, read this interview with author Andrew Keyt. Alternatively read this guide to starting a family business, or Andrew Nisbet’s defence of the ownership structure.  

Image credit: Nandhu Kumar

Jo Macsween is a Vistage chair. 

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