Fatherly advice: 6 lessons in managing a family business

As the father-and-son team behind Polymer Technologies Inc., Robert and Jarred Prybutok exemplify what it means to successfully manage the dynamics of a family business. The pair has worked side by side for more than two decades, with Robert serving as president and CEO and Jarred “wearing almost every hat in the company” before he was named general manager and executive vice president.


Robert Prybutok

There are still times, however, when Robert and Jarred’s relationship as colleagues conflicts with their relationship as father and son.

Case in point: If Jarred manages a business situation independently and informs his father that he doesn’t need his input, Robert admits that he “can get annoyed [even though Jarred is] totally correct,” he says. “I just remind myself that authority goes with responsibility.”

Of course, there are plenty of other family-business challenges that Robert and Jarred have had to solve for in the last 23 years. These six lessons are among the most important ones they’ve had to learn:


Jarred Prybutok

1. Work elsewhere first. Ideally, the sons or daughters of family business owners should gain work experience in a related industry before joining the family firm, says Robert. Not only will that experience help them grow more independent, but it will teach them organizational best practices that they can later apply to the family business.

2. Treat family members as professionals. Take a step back from the parent-child relationship. In the workplace, sons and daughters need to be treated like every other employee. This will help them accept their professional role and responsibilities while encouraging other employees to accept and respect them. “The manner in which [family members] interact with one another either reinforces or negatively impacts the culture in an organization,” explains Robert.

3. Learn through exposure. Giving sons or daughters exposure to many aspects of the family business will help them develop a broad grasp of the company’s principles while gaining respect from fellow employees. “A son or daughter in a business should maintain a humble perspective,” Jarred adds. “It is important to respect the expertise of those within the business and learn from those around you.”

4. Recognize emotional triggers. Family dynamics can trigger emotions that aren’t always appropriate in the workplace. “Sometimes ‘general manager reporting to president’ can slip to ‘son reporting to father,’” explains Jarred. “There is a more complex set of emotions that reside in those family relationships, so being aware of them is critical.” During emotionally charged moments, Robert recommends taking a step back until you can regain an objective perspective. “Over time, it will become second nature to monitor your emotions when dealing with family members,” he notes.

5. Set great expectations. Expectations for family members should be consistent with, if not higher than, other employees, says Robert, explaining that family members set the performance standards for everyone in the organization. He also stresses the importance of teaching sons and daughters to understand the financial side of the business and manage the business as if they’re going to sell it.

6. Remember that leadership is earned, not owed. Robert notes that a leadership role is not a rite of passage for the son or daughter of a business owner; it is a privilege that must be earned. He encourages business owners to be objective when assessing their child’s capabilities and finding the right place for them in the company. Jarred agrees. “The child coming into the business should understand that nothing is to be handed to them,” he says. “They need to work hard if not harder than those around them [and] strive to support the development and growth of the business.”

The other, unofficial rule? Take time to kick back and enjoy the company of your family. After all, the beauty of running a family business is that you get to spend time with the people you care for most.

“Play hard as a family,” says Robert. “Enjoy the successes.”

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