Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : March 19th 2015 Contents MARCH 2015 • WEEK THREE www.guardian.co.tt BUSINESS GUARDIAN
COMMENTARY | BG19
One of the more disturbing images to which
we are increasingly exposed on television,
print media and social media is people
held against their will in cages. They may
be innocent journalists dressed in white
and being tried in Egyptian courts, or
orange clad captives of terrorist groups.
Whatever the circumstances and the clothing, the message is
that these people have no agency to act on their own behalf
and are trapped by and in systems to which they do not sub-
scribe or even belong.
While we may not react as viscerally to these pictures as
we do to reports of beheadings or immolation, most of us are
taken aback and even repulsed by seeing humans so cruelly
confined and treated.
While the parallel may appear extreme, I am often saddened
when I encounter, in my practice, family members who are
in invisible cages; trapped in the family business system. There
are those who work in the business and feel they had no choice
but to join the firm. They felt obligated to "help out" as their
parents were swamped and needed them, or so they were told.
In some cases, sadly, illness or death created a vacuum into
which they felt compelled to step. These offspring were often
propelled by a heavy sense of obligation to the family. They
put aside their personal aspirations and careers to enter a
business for which they may not feel any passion. Indeed
some of them may have already been on a different career
path when they were summoned back or "decided" to return
from university or a dream job to hold down the fort.
Admirably, many of these people are able to function fairly
well and make worthwhile contributions to the business. They
move past the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams and
embrace their role in the family business system. Their cages
are big enough to encourage wide movement and they lose
their sense of confinement as they broaden their vision of self
and develop a sense of purpose within the family and the
Occasionally, I get a sense of wistfulness when they refer
to a long-buried ambition. I have seen some of them seek to
combine their long lost world with their new reality. They
create hobbies or pursue on-line studies in their original voca-
tion. The more daring among them sometimes try to include
their original path into their work by pursuing a new division
or acquisition within the business. That could be a dangerous
path, though, and I am wary and sceptical, even as I feel sym-
pathetic when I observe such actions.
From captives to captors
This scenario is more prevalent in first generation businesses
which may not have yet implemented systems to avoid that
crunch. The business has not progressed to a stage of growth
and professionalism where non-family management is empow-
ered and held accountable by defined shareholder goals and
The best outcome is when that generation of family members
seeks to ensure that the business is set up to avoid another
generation facing that soft imprisonment. The most valuable
family member employees are those who are exposed to other
options and want to join the business. They are excited by
the opportunity the business presents and cannot wait to
make their mark. Yet, in too many cases, the captives themselves
become captors in later life and impose similar obligations on
their own children. It may be a subtle approach born out of
unconscious adherence to their life story but undesirable,
The more disturbing situations are those where family mem-
bers "willingly" join the business solely as a means to protect
their inheritances. They think that if they do not "work" in
the business, their parents will not look kindly upon them in
share and wealth distribution so they are trapped in the business
while waiting for a senior person to die. The business becomes
a cage out of which they will escape when they get the shares
The reading of the will is tantamount to break-out. These
are the cases that could well destroy value in the business.
In those family firms, we not only have square pegs in round
holes of employment but the business becomes a parking lot.
Family members are given a substantive post with attendant
remuneration and they function at much less than capacity.
They work" part time in a full-time job and cheat the business,
the family and, ultimately, themselves. Siblings and cousins
jostle for jobs for which they are ill-suited and it becomes a
power struggle to see who gets closest to the bars of the cage.
The parents frequently close one eye when they observe
their offspring behaving in this manner and tell themselves
all kinds of stories to avoid the ultimate disappointment.
Often though, they have sent the signal that the only way
to benefit from the family business is to work in the business.
The business does not distinguish between family employees
and family shareholders and benefits are collapsed. Family
members who do not work in the business are treated as sec-
ond-class citizens, or made to feel excluded from a special
club. There is no recognition of the role and rights of passive
shareholders as compared to active shareholders who work in
Free at Last
Happily, I am noticing that in my practice, more family
business owners are cognisant of the traps that such behaviour
sets and are acting to free the business and the family from
those restrictions. They are making the necessary distinctions
between family employees and family shareholders; and between
family members who work in the business and those who
chose a different path without prejudicing either group. Yes,
it requires a more sophisticated way of functioning, more
transparency, accountability and defined policies that may at
times appear onerous.
The benefits far outweigh the costs, though. Ask any freed
man or woman.
Dr Annette Rahael is a family business adviser. Feedback
can be sent to: AnnetteRahael@gmail.com
Family business: Caged in
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