Our family was watching Shark Tank together last night, and one of the companies making their pitch did something that I see far too often.

There were two women standing before the sharks, and in response to a question, one of them continually responded with “I have done this…”, “I can do that…”, while her partner stood there looking like a nobody.

Now it is highly probable that the woman using the first person singular pronoun “I” is in fact the only person who owns their company, or is at least the one at the top of their company food chain.

But if that is the case, what was the point of bringing along the other person? I see something similar, far too often, when shopping at local retailers. When I ask someone if they have a particular item, the reply sometimes comes “I have some in the back”, or “I’m getting some in next week.”

Well if the person saying this is the owner of the store, I certainly understand that, but when it comes from a teenager at a big box store, I think it is safe to say that they do not own the place, and therefore the item I am asking about is not “theirs” in any way.

In a family business context, this can be pretty tricky too. If Mom or Dad started the business without the kids, they can certainly be forgiven if they continue to say I rather than we. But what do they gain by that?

Maybe it is a cultural thing, but to me it smacks of some kind of ego gratification and making oneself seem important. But again, what is gained?

I daresay that in most contexts, a customer would feel more reassured knowing that they are dealing with a company comprised of several people who all care about serving them as a customer, rather than by just one, especially if the one is not “the boss”.

Back to the family scenario, so Dad keps saying “I” even when the children have taken on significant roles, no big deal, right? Well think about it from the perspective of those kids, how do they feel? Early on it is not much of an issue, but what about after 5 years, or 15, or 25?

To illustrate let me share a story about a related question, what the kids call their parents. As a child, I called my father “Daddy”. That is fine when you are 8, but at 28, or 38, it sounds pretty childish. I was ashamed to use the term, so I always found a way to avoid calling him anything. After all those years switching to “Dad” did not feel right.

With my own kids, I let them call me “Daddy” for the first couple of years, but then insisted they call me “Dad”, and they have been doing it ever since. (Okay, I’ll admit they sometimes call me Stevo, but never Daddy)

Old habits are hard to break, but they can be broken. What is needed first is the recognition that a change is needed, and then an insistance that the change be made. Then, with repetition, and more repetition, the change can become permanent.

The other thing to point out is the sooner you start, the easier it is.

The specific words that we use are often more important than we think they are, and when you switch to using “we” instead of “I”, it is rarely just a change in vocabulary.

The shift in attitude that comes along with the change in vocabulary is even more important. And don’t forget, it can come before OR after.

That’s right, you can change your attitude and decide to change the words you use, OR, you can change the words you use, and your attitude will eventually change too. Try it.

Steve Legler “gets” business families.
He understands the issues that families face, as well as how each family member sees things from their own viewpoint.
He specializes in helping business families navigate the difficult areas where the family and the business overlap, by listening to each person’s concerns and ideas.  He then helps the family work together to bridge gaps by building common goals, based on their shared values and vision.
His background in family business, his experience running his own family office, along with his education and training in coaching, facilitation, and mediation, make him uniquely suited to the role of advising business families and families of wealth.
He is the author of Shift your Family Business (2014), he received his MBA from the Richard  Ivey School of Business (UWO, 1991), is a CFA Charterholder (CFA Institute, 2002), a Family Enterprise Advisor (IFEA 2014), and has received the ACFBA and CFWA accreditations (Family Firm Institute 2014-2015).
He prides himself on his ability to help families create the harmony they need to support the legacy they want. To learn how, start by signing up for his monthly newsletter and weekly blogs here.