The Informality of the Family
27th April 2022
At Alembic, we are a family business. I (Jess) work for my Dad (Nick) and my Mum (Sarah) founded the business with him. My sister, Molly, is also mentioned in this article. We had a discussion exploring our different experiences of working together. We focused on where to draw the boundary between work and home, how you define what that means, how each of us defines it personally, and how we work it out together.
I started us off by asking Dad what came to mind when I read him the article title.
Nick: One evening this week, your Mum and I were going home from the office together on the train, and we used the opportunity to talk about budgets before we got home, because it’s a private conversation from you. We decided to finish the conversation over supper at Pizza Express. At the end of the meal, we considered whether to charge the company for the expense of the meal.
Sarah: We didn’t! We forgot to put it on the business account and wondered if it’s truly deductible. This perhaps cuts to the heart of the informality of the family business, where are the boundary lines?
Nick: It’s an interesting discussion, the formality of problem solving in a business environment versus how things get worked out in a family at home. When a problem comes up in the office, we naturally turn to the tools we have in our arsenal when we work with clients on issues with their strategy or in their relationships. But this structure falls away when we are at home together – it’s too formal for a family.
Dad also talked a bit about the way he sees the relationship dynamics with me and Mum now that we all work together:
Nick: I naturally… I guess I’ve got the experience to see it as a relationship. When I’m speaking to you about the business, I’m speaking in the business relationship, and I see it as a family relationship when I’m not doing that. I try to be consistent in who I am. I’m my normal self at work and my normal self at home, generally I’m being relaxed and normal in the team at work, and I step into formality on the odd occasion. I use my formality when needed. I try to make it organic at work, it’s easier. I find it hard to switch off from business and so does your Mum. I work evenings and weekends, which should be family time, that’s always been a pressure. Sometimes I get in and want to stop for the evening and your Mum will want to talk about business stuff and I’m like, ah, I really don’t want to, can we not, I just want to switch off. It depends a little bit on the mood I’m in. I’m a bit inconsistent about it. Sometimes decisions come up that cross the boundaries, where we’re arguing as husband/wife rather than as boss/employee. Sarah has the right to argue about it as my wife, but I have the right to overrule it as her boss.
Sarah: He said with a smirk.
Nick: As you can see, that’s a tough one!
Sarah: An ability to control the curl of his lip!
By this point, we are all laughing.
Nick: [In typical Alembic fashion] another way to frame that is it is sort of amusing! She’s my equal in the decision but only from one side, as my wife, so that’s quite tough if we disagree. I try not to stress too much and I make my own mind up. I can’t worry too much about it being offensive, I might be wrong but I just have to live with that… someone has to make a decision. Your Mum accepts my experience and she does bravely and capably challenge me about it, she’s a good business partner in that way. If she is wanting to have an influence as an employee I would just let her, she has a right to that, I don’t try and control that. When we do encounter those arguments we learn from them.
He then talked a little about my part in the dynamic.
Nick: For you, having my daughter working for the business, there’s an additional complication of confidentiality. You can just pile into living room when we’re talking about one of your colleagues. We could do this better. There’s also the fact that I have to not treat you as my daughter. You get the job because you deserve the job, you get a promotion because you did well, there has to be no sense of familial preferment. I have to check myself that I’m being fair from an employee’s point of view, you should only be promoted/held back because of what you do. I am the same with you as you would be with anyone else on the team.
I asked Mum what she thought on all of this, and she agreed with Dad.
Sarah: I don’t think I have responses to your Dad, I think that’s a true reflection, I perceive things the same way. I think that this issue has four quarters to it – there’s the don’t bring business stuff home part, and don’t bring family stuff to the business, but there’s also… if you are a couple who are not working together, you do talk about work things! You decompress if you work in different places, you decompress together away from the office. That becomes an added factor.
Normally when you’re in the office, you talk about personal stuff with your colleagues! That’s how you have relationships at work and how you’re not being a 2D cut out, you create rounded relationships this way. You’ve got this weird dynamic where you have to be able to do that competently and consciously, thinking I am not being “the person at work” but I know the boundaries of my personal life, rather than pulling up a personal argument that your family member would never want you to talk about… the things that aren’t supposed to be revealed in front of colleagues. That’s completely inappropriate and makes everyone feel really uncomfortable, so you have to think about this. Relationally, what is out of bounds? That idea of… you wouldn’t do that to someone outside your family so you wouldn’t do it within your family either. It’s quite complicated!
Nick: You’d come home and chat about work. It’d be quite interesting, you’d be hearing about your partner’s day that you haven’t experienced. Whereas in a family business, you’ve probably spent the whole day together, and even if you weren’t there, there’s less need for this because you generally know what’s been going on. This might be something that makes it less easy being in a family business. They might be the ones you’re griping about, and you’d be going home and saying “Oh my god, I can’t believe what Sarah did today!” But they’re with you at home too. It’s decompressing, it’s getting it off your chest, you miss that being in a family business, you shape an idea about how to process something. There’s a lack of privacy.
If we were talking as Mum, Dad and daughter, having chit chat, it would bubble away without any structure from work to home. For us, you could accidentally while doing that breach all of those boundaries we’ve just listed. It’s appropriate as family, but inappropriate as colleagues. We have a good practice of being conscious of work topics, knowing it and trying to be conscious.
Jess: My thoughts are that this is the first time we’ve talked about this as a family since I started at work. I don’t see a distinction between work and home Dad, I think work is your life. You live your job, and that’s very different for me. I need to be able to switch off from work at the end of the day to unwind and to have a sense that I have a home life, since work already takes up so much of your life and your time!
For me, if I was deciding how we would consciously structure things, I would want there to be rules against discussions about work at certain times, like I wouldn’t want to talk about it if we ate together or sitting in the living room together. I often find that I will come into the room to talk to you both about something else in my life, and the discussion inevitably transforms into one about work, and it makes me want to leave the room.
I find that I choose whether to talk to you about certain things or not now because I know they’ll turn into a conversation about work. At the same time, I will want to tell you about parts of my day that were funny or interesting, because we rarely cross over at work in our roles! Where I would’ve done this at previous jobs, I hold back now because it branches things out into a larger discussion about the company, and I don’t want that. I just want to have a giggle about the funny thing that happened!
Sarah: I think that’s a really important observation because one of the ways that you would set boundaries is that you have roles. You know your role, you’re trying to be as capable and competent in that role as anyone else working anywhere else. What that says to me is that if your Dad is coming home as MD of Alembic, one of the ideas to come out of that is that in a family business it is essential for you to know who you are outside of the business and to have an identity outside of the business. To be questioning, what sort of things do you do that creates that differentiation, a capability to switch roles?
Nick: Molly would get annoyed with me about this and say “All you ever do is talk about work, you only ever have two subjects you talk about,” and she didn’t want to engage with the conversations because they’re my only two conversations. I was like, think about it from my point of view, I want to talk to you about who I am and what I do, if you are interested in me, why aren’t you engaging with me? There is more to me, but you never ask me any other questions!
So we had a good debate where she said tell me about so and so, it was an economics topic and we ended up having a four hour long conversation. It was useful to her as a Dad daughter conversation, it was a great conversation for us to have. I have loads I do outside of the business, I have a huge set of things going on. There’s plenty there, I feel like it’s a bit unfair and shows a lack of curiosity about me. But I don’t feel offended about it, I think it’s a part of growing up, when you’re changing roles from child to grown up, it’s a natural thing that children will go through, and I go through it with them, engage with them in an adult-to-adult way. It’s natural because when you’re younger, your parents tell you what to do and what not to do, but then it’s all gone all of a sudden, and it becomes how can I help you, versus when you’re little and it’s you can’t do this and that.
Sarah: Again I don’t disagree with that, if you’re in a family business, perhaps one of the agreements to discuss and talk about is having an ability as a family to observe the differences in the person, really recognise where the differences are between the person at work and the person at home. Purposefully exploring that to support the different identities that can be present in the different places, and work on demonstrating that difference as well by things you might choose to do together that are different. It’s easier when children are little to do that sort of thing, we’d be able to take you to the zoo, take you on a steam train ride. You look different, you’re doing things differently. Perhaps you have to be more creative if you’re a family in business together, having times you get together outside of work, making that happen purposefully so that you can create the outside of work identity.
Nick: Sarah and I are not that social, I have a big social life at work because I can’t have that at home. It gets dealt with more easily at work, it’s harder to do it at home. I do have some of that, I go to 12 Club, my cycling group who I go out and bike with. With the family we were looking up things to do, as you drift into that separation space, I search for stuff to do. It’s questioning whether that lands or not, whether you want to do any of it. Your Mum will look for theatre interests, things we might want to do together.
As the MD of a family business, it’s the source of the money for the family, which makes it compelling. It’s a relationship I’ve always found hard, where one person becomes obligated to do it a lot. It is dominating because it’s necessary, you have to provide; someone has to do that. It’s a huge undertaking when you choose to set up your own business. It might have just been better to get a job! I definitely feel that, I could’ve just got a job. I’ve never been able to balance it, home and work life. It’s un-balanceable I think, it’s always a stress.
Sarah: That brings in another important point – what’s the solution to what we’re both talking about? About not discussing things when we don’t want to in the evenings?
Nick: It’s diary management.
Sarah: Well, I don’t book things in. Everyone else books into his diary.
Jess: What is it that’s stopping you from booking it in?
Sarah: Because he’s busy.
Nick: Everyone else will say I need time can you move something, this is about really exploring your motivation for why. No one else has a problem booking things into my diary, they always do it even though I don’t have time. People move less important things around all the time. You’re coming at this from a wife point of view, trying to be caring about my time. But I would say as a colleague you aren’t being proactive enough about booking in and that’s not good! You’re not prioritising your role.
Sarah: If you’re feeling resentment about the time, where do you go with that? Your Dad has come up with a response at an emotional level. I might be being a caring wife about this, I’m polarised by a need to care about him and care about my job role. It’s important so that I know enough for the client that I’ll be talking to. But these issues then come up, there are feelings going on underneath this issue, how do I answer that to be good enough for both parties so that in this case… it’s a triangulation. We are all talking about all our feelings, so we need to be really looking at that. What’s a good scenario? There’s a complication about the different needs that are going on there. We need to be really getting to the heart of what is the best solution to answer all of those things?
Jess: Were you aware of this before we talked about it, with the diary management?
Sarah: I was conscious of it before this conversation, I know this, I don’t change it because I don’t have the same feelings about talking about stuff in the evenings, I am not bothered about it.
Nick: I think that’s unprofessional, and inconsiderate.
Sarah: Yes, it is.
Jess: It’s bad for both sides, because talking about things in the evening causes stress at home and isn’t good for the job role! What we’re really saying is that we need another Alembic to come and help us with this! We spend so much time working on other people’s strategies that we don’t have time to look at our own stuff!
Nick: When I offered you the job Jess, I don’t know if you remember but I said that we need to have a family council or we will get into a muddle, we need to find the boundaries. We sort of just started to see how we go, but it’s about time we did have this conversation. When you’re in a family business, I try to delegate so that people get on with things as much as possible, and when the problems are more difficult we all come together to work on it. It’s my job to help people resolve relationship issues at work. But when that goes across lines into the family, it’s on me as MD but not on me as Dad. When it’s family life I’m not the boss. It’s my accountability with the business but shared in the family. As it crosses these lines it’s difficult, I can’t make the decision in the same way, I can ask but you have equal rights, there are an informal set of statuses in family.
People are going to do the best at work if their family life balance is right, I am keen to encourage people to do everything they need to do to get it right, I have no issue dealing with all of this. I say this as MD and believe it as Dad, but I can only say I want it.
Sarah: What we were talking about at the beginning? A meeting that needed to be private, and with you as a more junior member of the team Jess. Thinking about you having relationships about other members of the team, you should be able to have that level of relationship with them without us being involved. That’s why it’s important.
Jess: Yeah and another weird thing is that the MD of the company is my Dad. That’s really odd because the way I talk to him is obviously different and I would approach him in a less formal way. And the usual dynamic that would be there between a junior marketing exec and an MD isn’t. It’s all these nuanced relationship things that are so different to normal companies.
Dad suggested that we answer a few specific questions before we finished the conversation.
Nick: What’s the best thing about being a family business?
Nick: An opportunity to share useful work tips in a very meaningful way with family.
Sarah: I don’t know how to answer this. I guess I have to say that it is… I like the mix of being able to apply intellectual ideas with creativity without bounds, I think that’s the point.
Jess: Do you think that’s because of the way Alembic is?
Sarah: I do, I think it’s because of the work we do.
Jess: For me, I would have to say it’s the lack of discrimination against my medical condition that I have not found anywhere else on the planet earth since I started working.
Nick: What’s your favourite Alembic moment?
Nick: When Anna produced an Alembic branded birthday cake.
Sarah: When Ben, in the middle of one of his presentations, did a Kung Fu Panda pose. I think of it daily, I love it, it’s my favourite moment ever.
Jess: When me, Ben and Alice have our meetings together. We once all wrote to the makers of Polos to ask them to bring back Alice’s favourite flavour that got discontinued and we were all laughing about the fact that a customer service rep was getting a sudden influx of requests for citrus Polos. I am now worried that my boss thinks I’m unproductive at work!
Nick: If Alembic were an animal what would it be?
Nick: A friendly tiger – you could tickle its belly but it might kill you!
Jess: Are you sure that’s the best way to describe the company?!
Sarah: What you’re describing is that gentle taming, gentle strength.
Nick: Yeah, so maybe a bee, a hive of bees. There’s this story on the side of Tate and Lyle syrup. There was a lion and a hive of bees, and from strength comes forth sweetness. Or I was also thinking about a magpie or a crow, because they’re good at problem solving.
Sarah: A chameleon – it’s able to change its colours to a bespoke need.
Jess: Well, I was also going to say bees, because they’re pollinators. They have a spreading effect, and they help things to grow. They do good things, and it flows out to everything else around the flowers that they pollinate. I want to ask a question about relationships and family because we’re already defaulting to work based questions!
Jess: What’s our favourite thing about each other?
Nick: Jess is funky and makes me giggle, Sarah is endlessly interesting, she’s a fascinating person.
Sarah: A complete conundrum!
Nick: She keeps me on the edge all the time, she’s always surprising and interesting.
Sarah: Jess: I really admire her bravery. And Nick, there’s this quality about you that you just always find the right words and you’ve got this way of saying something confrontational and difficult in a way that’s completely non-offensive. You’ll endlessly try and keep things… make sure that everyone is comfortable and entertained. You look after people socially very very well, you think it’s important and you do it and that’s alien to me so I really admire it.
Jess: Dad has superman level resilience, you just keep doing things, so many things, every day. Mum, I think it’s the way that you share your creativity with everyone. You do things in a way that means that everyone is involved in your creativity. You always have people doing interesting things.
We ended the discussion by joking about whether our shepherd’s pie is deductible if we talk about the business while we’re eating it. Though I suppose it is also important to say that as a family business ourselves, we understand the nuanced issues that arise, such as the ones we’ve discussed, when we work with our family business clients. And we hope that this shows that we don’t by any means think it’s an easy thing to manage – we hadn’t even talked about this before we wrote this article. Our ability to maintain a professional distance from the inner relationships of another family business allows us to resolve these sorts of issues, when it is paired with our understanding and empathy for the challenges. It makes us quite a formidable catalyst for growth.
About the Author
Jess Mayhew "I work at Alembic as a Marketing Executive. So far, my work has enabled me to hear our clients’ voices and try to alter the way we communicate to match their needs more deeply. In my spare time I am usually making music, cycling, cooking new recipes and caring for my animals."