Informal Authority in Family Business

Informal Authority in Family Business

I like writing about aspects of family business that sometimes get overlooked “in real life”.

Some subjects that you can learn about in business school work OK in most places, but somehow, when looking at a family business, things aren’t that way at all.


The Standard Org Chart

Nowhere is this more apparent than with a document that you’ll find in just about any company, the good old organization chart.

There are usually lots of rectangles, connected together by lines, and often looking a bit like a pyramid.

Simple enough, “this person is in charge of this department”, “these people report to this person”, “those department heads in turn report to this VP”, you know what I’m talking about.


The FamBiz Org Chart

A family business, especially early on in its lifespan, may not even have an org chart.

When someone finally insists on creating one, the founder may not like it and may even ignore it.

Eventually, as the company grows, they’ll reluctantly agree that one is needed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll respect it.


Respect My Authority!

The person at the top of the chart will often simply prefer to rely on the fact that they’re at the top and therefore, everyone else is below them and in turn reports to them.

While this is often factually correct, the reporting lines at the lower levels are there for a reason, and employees come to expect that those lines will be respected.

When the owner or founder walks into a department and sees something they don’t like, it’s pretty hard for them to bite their tongue and seek out the person below them on the org chart to relay a message.

In order to “save time” they’ll usually give instructions that the lowly employee feels they have no choice but to follow.


Giving Up Formal Authority

The good news is that while this type of scenario is rather commonplace, it is often harmless.

That is, as long as the person who’s giving the instructions is still truly the top person in the company.

When leaders step back, whether formally retiring or just cutting back to let others build their leadership, this can get a bit trickier.

The employees who are given instructions to do something will ususally feel beholden to the oldest person, and do as they say.

But what if what they’re being told goes against what their “real boss” (according to the org chart) has told them?


Formalize the Authority

One of the things I like to suggest to family business clients is to formalize the authority.

What does that look like? Glad you asked.

When a business leader steps back or steps out, it is essential that the employees know who is now in charge.

There are several ways to do this, and it may be best to use more than one:


          – Leadership Handover Ceremony

A formal ceremony in front of the employees, during which the outgoing leader is thanked and acknowledged.


          – Bulletin Board or Newsletter

A written message posted on a company bulletin board and sent to employees via a regular newsletter publication.


          – A Simple Email to Employees

If there is no newsletter, an email explaining the changes at the top, with appropriate thanks and best wishes.


Culture and Leadership from the Top

The new leader needs to be able to put their cultural stamp on things, and it’s next to impossible for them to do so unless and until the former leader has officially stepped aside.

“Officially” is a big word, though, so it’s important that both parties, the one leaving and the one coming in, be part of any such announcement.

The more people who witness it, the better. This is why I have a strong preference for the ceremony.


Group Decision, for the Good of the Group

For all employees to be able to buy into the new reality, it needs to appear to be a joint decision, and not any sort of “coup” or forced take-over.

The outgoing leader will hopefully see this as “closure” and resist the temptation to return to a leading role.

If a support role can be identified for the outgoing leader, to still retain some presence (at a much lower official level) that can also be good.


Clarity is Key

Few things in any organization are more important that clarity. Clear lines of authority are a must.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *