Recently I gave a short presentation to a group of business people, all of whom have children, on the subject of possibly bringing their children into their businesses.
On one of the Powerpoint slides, the heading “Rules and Roles” appeared. I explained that it was key for every new employee to have a clearly defined role, and that this was even more important for family members upon joining a family company.
But in addition to the “Roles”, I really wanted to emphasize the “Rules” part. Most families do have a few rules that they use to govern household issues, but very few families actually write them down and keep track of them.
For families in business together, it is considered a “best practice” to not only have rules, but also to write them down, review and update them, refer to them as needed, and generally know what the rules are and understand how important they are in keeping things clear.
A few months ago I came across something on Twitter that I filed away for a future blog post, and since we are talking about rules, it seems quite à propos to pull it out now. Someone had taken a photo at the Museum of Moving Image in New York and tweeted it out, and it got retweeted by several others.
I don’t think it came close to going viral, but it did garner quite a bit of attention for a few hours. The photo was a list of 9 rules that Chuck Jones of Warner Brothers had compiled to govern the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons of our youth.
For example: Rule 1 states that the “Roadrunner cannot harm the Coyote, except by going Beep Beep”. Rule 4 states, “No dialogue, ever, except Beep Beep”. Rule 8 says, “Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy”.
This got me wondering why they actually took the time to write these things down, and whether they made these rules before they began, or as the went along over the years. Also, did they write the rules out all at once, or did the list get added to over the course of seasons? How often did they have to refer to the rules, was it only occasionally if there were creative differences, or if a new person was brought onto the team?
My guess is that they did find it useful to write the rules down in order to make things consistent over time. If the Coyote suddenly started buying his stuff from Amazon instead of Acme, viewers would have known immediately that something was amiss.
I think we all knew that the chances of the Coyote ever catching the Roadrunner were worse than for Charlie Brown to ever actually kick the football that Lucy was holding.
In an attempt to tie these rules into the realm of Family Business, I think it makes sense to look at the second rule on the list.
Rule 2: “No outside force can harm the Coyote, only his own ineptitude or the failure of the Acme products”.
Some family businesses fail due to outside forces, relating to their markets, their products, competition, new technology, and all sorts of other “business” reasons.
Unfortunately, a larger percentage of family businesses actually fall apart due to family issues, and not due to “outside forces”.
Does that make them “inept”? Well not necessarily, that may be too harsh a word for it. But if more families in business would take the time to create rules together, make sure that they are understood and followed, and kept all their lines of communication open, it would certainly lead to less family business failures.
Rule 9: “The Coyote is always more humiliated tham harmed by his failures”. Unfortunately in some families, some members do feel humiliated, and often some people are harmed.
It is never too early, nor too late, to start working on your business family’s rulebook.