Executive Education

What You Need to Know Before Hiring a Family Member

Kathy Kolbe and Amy Bruske

What is worse than having to fire a key employee?

Having to fire a key employee who is a family member.

Even though your son is the best data analyst you know, you should not hire him unless you can answer “Yes” to the following Key Questions:

  1. Does this family member share your work ethic and business values?

  2. Can you and this family member keep your workplace conversations totally focused on work issues – and not let it dominate personal time?

  3. Is there a path of success that fits the instinctive capabilities of this family member?

  4. Would the family member be committed to the company mission?

  5. Does the family member communicate well with relatives and others?

  6. Does the family member understand that business is business, so family connections will not impact performance evaluations and rewards?

  7. Do you have an “out” if it doesn’t work?

    Answering “Yes” to these questions improves the odds that it will work out to hire the family member you are considering. It’s a tried and true method with your kids, siblings, nieces, and nephews – even parents.

    Working with a spouse

    If you are considering hiring or going into a business partnership with your spouse, add one more question:

  8. Can you keep from talking business at home?

    Harry’s wife, Margo, is one of the best project managers he had ever seen.  He was amazed at how she could handle complex issues, define priorities, and articulate benefits.

    “I would give anything to have someone like you work for me,” he said.

    “Honey,” she said, “It’s great that I can come home and bitch about company policies, it would be pretty awful if you were the author of them.”

    Most horror stories about couples failing to work well together could have been predicted just by answering questions #2, #3 and #5.  If Harry stereotyped Margo’s instinctive capabilities as being those of a system driven female rather than her reality of being a strategic marketer, it could be a disaster.  And, she was right: if they talked about business problems at dinner it would not work.

    Once Harry and Margo understood each other’s instincts, they decided to work together. By frequently reconfirming their answers to all eight Key Questions, their combined efforts enabled them to enjoy retirement financed by the sale of the business.

    Sibling rivalries

    Nate and Pete inherited the family business, which was left to them as equal, third – generation partners.  They were in their twenties when their parents died in a plane crash, and had been moving through different roles in the company as part of a long-range plan to see where they should settle.

    The brothers both improvise solutions and ignore traditions. Being so much alike had made them great buddies.  However, in the business, these idea generators vied for funding and efforts spent on their differing visions of the future.

    Nate and Pete struggled to work together through a horrible decade of dissension. As much as they loved one another, they simply could not figure out how to satisfy their competing needs in running the business.  They solved the problem when one brother bought out the other, giving both the opportunity to run their separate enterprises.


    It is tough to avoid something you’ve never been told about. Conation is the term for the part of the brain that houses individuals’ MO (modus operandi), or the pattern used to drive all purposeful action. Too bad most scientists have ignored it for the century and they have become fixated on the intellect. Smart people do not always get the job done.

    You can’t run a business without trusting your conative instincts: CEOs have proven far more aware of this innate ability than most others. Yet the conative capabilities they see in themselves are rarely the wisest for them to replicate in the people who work closely with them. Conative cloning often works quite nicely in personal relationships, but causes inertia in team problem-solving.

    Parents who have more than one child usually see differing instincts in their offspring. There is no genetic tie to conation, the action-orientation in the brain that is driven by instincts.  It determines MOs), which has no connection to intelligence or personality – or how your parents taught you to clean up your room. Being given the freedom to be themselves often leads people to select a wide variety of actions.

    From a diversity of conative capabilities, siblings can create powerful leadership teams.

    Developing NextGen Leaders

    Mike founded a highly profitable software development company several years ago, and has successfully utilized the programming abilities of an uncle and a nephew. He had not thought about the company as a family business until an advisor mentioned that he needed a succession plan.

    He hasn’t been paying his wife, Sara, but she has been the strategist who has helped him make complex decisions.

    “I cut deals,” Mike said, “I’m the promoter who fakes it until I made it. Sara keeps me honest.”  Although she doesn’t take a salary, they count on their differing conative capabilities to deal with all major decisions.

    Their eldest son, Kirk, has been around the business all of his formative years, from getting paid to shred documents, to editing them. He grew up looking over the shoulders of design engineers. He was exposed to all the excitement of advanced systems throughout his youth and his university experience.

    Mike hoped Kirk and his younger brother would both stick around, with Kirk taking over management of the company someday. But for Kirk, the answers to Key Questions 3, 5 and 7 are negative. It will not work for him to fill his father’s shoes.  He has the instincts of a hands-on hardware engineer, not those of either of his parents.

    Although Kirk did not become their next gen leader, Mike has fun talking with him about his issues with projects over dinners together. It may seem odd to others, but the family knows not to talk business problems when the younger son is at the table. That’s the son who turned out to be perfect for grooming as a future leader of the family business. Since he is currently working in it, they have to be able to answer a question that stems from the original Key Question #8 for spouses.  It asks:

  9. Can you and other family members agree that Business is Business, and that you will not discuss business problems at the family dinner table?

Written by Kathy Kolbe and Amy Bruske at Kolbe Corp.

Kathy Kolbe is the global leader in discovering and accessing the power of human instincts. She has done the brain research to prove the relevance of her Kolbe Theory of Conation to individual and organizational success. She is Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Kolbe Corp. and co-author of BUSINESS IS BUSINESS:  Reality Checks For Family Owned Companies.

Amy Bruske is the president of Kolbe Corp and leads seminars for business leaders throughout the world. She was recently named Business Owner of the Year by the Phoenix chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).   Bruske is co-author of BUSINESS IS BUSINESS:  Reality Checks For Family Owned Companies.

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