If you want a sense of how fraught leaving the family business can be, look no further than Harry and Meghan. In consulting with family businesses, I can tell you that when a member decides to step out, it’s often a challenge far beyond losing an employee.

On the one hand, there are often great benefits to being born into a successful business family. There are the financial benefits, the proverbial “born with a silver spoon in your mouth.” There may be a strong sense of identity and of shared family purpose. But on the other hand, working in a family business can be oppressive and even soul-destroying.

You’re navigating all the complicated dynamics of your family at the same time that you’re operating in your work environment. The lines of authority are often very top-down. It’s not uncommon for family members to want out, but the process of departing is often very painful. It looks as if that’s the case for the British royal family as well.

What leaving the family business really entails

Of course, the royal family business is unique in many ways. The intensity of public scrutiny is unparalleled. The weight of tradition is heavy. The obligation to the general public, who are paying for their luxurious lifestyles and depending on them to lead exemplary lives, is especially onerous.

And yet, there are lessons here for other family businesses. In a crisis like this, there needs to be thoughtful reflection on both sides — by the other family members who lead the business, and by the members who want to leave.

Some years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet Philippe de Gaspe´ Beaubien and his wife, Nan-b, the leaders of a prominent Canadian business family. Philippe told me his family had been entrepreneurs for seventeen generations, but they had never managed to pass on the business from one generation to the next. Each generation had started something new.

Working for a family business requires generational purpose

Philippe and Nan-b were determined to break this chain, and they did indeed succeed in passing their business to their children. In the process, they founded the Business Families Foundation, an international organization focused on helping business families manage leadership succession and other challenges.

One of their suggestions is to reflect on “achieving generational purpose”:

As the rising generation of a family emerges, a transitioning family enterprise might ask itself: Is it our supreme vision to stay together as a business-owning family for several generations? To build wealth and give back? To create a legacy for our employees? Or all or none of the above? Purpose is an objective. Take action and map out your family’s destiny.

I can’t help but wonder if the House of Windsor has spent time together asking those kinds of questions.

How to get out of a family business gracefully

And what about the people quitting the family business, in this case the young couple? What is their responsibility here? Of course, they owe it to themselves to pay attention to their own dreams and needs, and to leave a work situation they are finding intolerable. But I do question their choice to announce their intention on social media. That seems both disrespectful and unkind to the senior members of their family. When a client of mine is struggling with an emotionally-complicated challenge, I will coach him or her to navigate the transition in a generous manner if at all possible.   

Family businesses are an important part of our economy. Whether it’s a small mom-and-pop or a major global company, working in a family business can be a source of achievement and satisfaction or a nightmare. Navigating leadership succession and identifying purpose are important ways to keep a family business thriving.

If you’d like to know more about getting the best out of your family business and avoiding a Harry-and-Meghan scenario, contact us as ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com

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